Unless you are fond of reading about automotive history, you don’t hear this name very often: Charles Kettering. Yet, Kettering was the genius behind some of the most significant advances in automotive engineering. Inventions such as electrical ignition systems, automotive starter motors and even Freon gas were all attributable to Kettering. He was also the founder of DELCO Corporation, an automotive parts manufacturer that was eventually acquired by General Motors.
The Early Years
Charles was born in Loudonville, Ohio, in 1876. He was the fourth of five children born to Jacob Kettering and Martha Hunter Kettering. Kettering had poor vision and this lead to a childhood that unfortunately was consumed with constant headaches. However, he was a very smart boy and after his secondary school education was completed, he became a teacher. He enjoyed teaching and during this time, he took classes at The College of Wooster. Later he transferred to The Ohio State University (OSU) where he met his future wife, Olive Williams. Kettering eventually graduated from OSU in 1904 with a degree in electrical engineering.
Let the Inventions Begin
Kettering first job out of engineering school was with National Cash Register (NCR.) Here he worked in NCR’s large research laboratory. Kettering was by nature an innovative engineer and it wasn’t long before he achieved his first major invention: an easy credit approval system. This system was essentially a precursor to today’s credit card processing systems. He then put his mind to work on the old fashioned crank cash registers. Soon he developed an electric version which made ringing up sales physically much easier for sales clerks all over the country. During his five years at NCR, from 1904 to 1909, Kettering earned 23 patents.
In 1907, colleague Edward A. Deeds invited Kettering and another engineer, Harold E. Talbott, to join him working at night on improvements for the nascent automotive industry. Working nights and weekends, in Deed’s barn, their first invention was an electric ignition system designed to eliminate the magneto. This invention was a huge success and in 1909, all three engineers left NCR and founded Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company also known as DELCO.
The First Self-Starting Car
Back in the early 1900s, cars were started by hand crank. It was a technique that required some strength and it was dangerous. Here’s why: If the ignition timing retarded, the crank could kick back and strike whomever was cranking. As the story goes, a good friend of Ketterings was struck by a hand crank and killed. He immediately vowed that no one would ever be killed again attempting to start a car. On February 17, 1911, the first self-starting ignition was first installed in a Cadillac and the automotive industry took a major leap forward.
In the late 1800s until 1929, refrigerators used the gases, ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide, as refrigerants. Methyl chloride gas was especially toxic and deaths from leaking systems was becoming more common. In 1928, Thomas Midgley, Jr. and Kettering invented a refrigerant that was safe to use and called it “Freon.” Freon represents several different chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which today are widely used in commerce and industry. Unfortunately, the original Freon, referred to as R-12, has been identified as a major destroyer of the Earth’s ozone layer. Our service consultants at Central Ave. Hyundai of Hartsdale, a local Hyundai dealer in Hartsdale, NY, told us that Hyundai phased out the old R-12 freon in the early 2000s and is now using an environmentally Freon called R-134a. Had Kettering known about the ozone issue, he would have undoubtedly created a R-132a type replacement himself.
His inventions, especially the electric automobile starter, made him Kettering wealthy. In 1945, he helped found what became the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center based on the premise that American industrial research techniques could be applied to cancer research.
Kettering died on November 25, 1958. After his death, his body lay in honor at the Engineers Club and then was interred in the mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio.