3 February 2017

Boss Ket kicked off his career by starting Delco and grew from there

We could fill an entire article just by listing Charles Kettering’s inventions and innovations: the electric cash register, breaker-point ignition, electric starter, fast-drying lacquer paint, the modern V-8 crankshaft, ethyl gas, the cruise missile, home air conditioning, two-stroke diesel engines… And all that by 1930, when he had another 25 years of invention to go. Ideas flew off him like sparks from a forge, in every direction and the odds are that something you touched today is thanks to him.

In 1876, like so many of his contemporaries, Kettering was born on a farm. His family’s farm located in Ohio halfway between Cleveland and Columbus – the middle of nowhere. With $14 earned from cutting hay, he ordered a telephone from a catalog and disassembled it, presaging his years as a lineman. After high school, he took a year of training and briefly took up teaching, before entering Ohio State. Poor eyesight and other problems forced him to leave after a year, giving him two years of working the wires – and developing the state’s first central battery system for the exchange – before he returned to finish his degree in electrical engineering.

At the age of 27 in 1903 and finally holding a degree, Kettering joined National Cash Register in Dayton, Ohio, and developed the world’s first electric model, with an intermittent high-torque electric motor. Selling it in worldwide markets and adapting it to many different voltages quickly expanded his skills. With no problem seemingly unsolvable for NCR’s chief of research and development, they called him Boss, then and for the rest of his life.

While at NCR, Kettering and his good friend, NCR vice-president Edward Deeds, were working on their own electrical projects in Deeds’ garage; by 1909, Kettering (along with much of NCR’s R&D department) quit his day job to start Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company – DELCO. Deeds wouldn’t join until 1915. After inventing breaker-point ignition for Cadillac, Kettering then went to work on their high-torque self-starter, debuting on the 1912 models.

Delco was one of the seven initial companies merged together by William Durant in 1916 to create United Motors and Kettering went along with it. Other companies including the Dayton Wright Airplane Company (which Deeds and Kettering had founded to build WWI aircraft) were soon folded in as well, all of which was consolidated under the General Motors Corporation umbrella in 1919. Durant spun off all R&D operations the following year, with Kettering becoming President of General Motors Research Corporation, a division he’d run until his (hypothetical) retirement 27 years later.

GM’s enormous portfolio of subsidiaries allowed Kettering to send his sparks in many directions. His 1930 development of a practical two-stroke diesel engine sent GM into the yacht and then locomotive engine business. His 1933 eight-cylinder 600hp prime mover was the beginning of the end for steam, and GM was soon the largest manufacturer of train engines in the world, GM’s Alfred P. Sloan crediting him with the existence of the modern diesel engine.

Even Kettering’s offhand remarks could change the world. In 1916 he gave a talk at the Flint, Mich., YMCA which inspired listeners to found The School of Automobile Trades; it was acquired in 1926 as the General Motors Institute; and is today known as Kettering University. The day after the bombing of Hiroshima, he and fellow GM Vice-President announced a $4 million initiative to establish the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, with Kettering himself overseeing the creation of a modern cancer research program operating with industrial efficiency. While he had the opportunity to dabble in medical technology, Ketting developed a treatment for syphilis, an infant respirator and a mechanical heart, because why not.

Charles Kettering never really retired. He was active day-to-day with GM and countless other projects from 1947 through his death at age 82 in 1958. He received hundreds of patents, honorary degrees from 29 colleges and universities, and shaped modern land, air and sea travel. If Thomas Edison started the 20th Century, Boss Ket perfected it.

Hagerty’s Essentials is an ongoing series that helps introduce enthusiasts to people, places and things that every well-rounded car lover should know. Rather than being in-depth, Essentials is a quick take giving you a conversational knowledge and ultimately, an idea of how the whole fits together.

6 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Ronald K Thomas Near Dayton,Ohio February 4, 2017 at 21:01
    Boss Ket" was my Grandfather's boss first at NCR then Delco Light and last Delco Products where He retired as Head Project Engineer, I was married on the day He was Layed to rest here in Dayton in the middle of a snow storm. Many Industry leaders never made it. Ron
  • 2
    Jack Coulter Columbus, GA February 8, 2017 at 23:37
    I really appreciate these types of historically informative articles on the minds that produced the mechanical marvels we all love to restore and own. So much of the collector public these days is devoted to the "monetary" side of these classics, and how much "profit" they can generate. That's sad to me, because the true value of these classics is their mechanical ingenuity, rock-solid simplicity, and ability to be maintained in roadworthy condition forever by an informed collector. With all the modern "throw-away" cars, costing as much as a house did 30 yrs ago, and with a planned obsolescence built in at the factory for the sake of more "profits", the true joy of owning a classic vehicle is NOT the money they sell for, it's owning something that was made by real craftsmen who took pride in building an American product that wold LAST! Just my two cents.
  • 3
    Richard Harvey Charlotte, MI February 9, 2017 at 11:39
    I also appreciate these historically informative articles, as I collect vintage International Harvester trucks. Cyrus H. McCormick was to the agricultural industry as Charles Kettering was to the automotive industry. Thank you.
  • 4
    George F. Kuntz, Jr Croton on Hudson, Ny 10520 February 9, 2017 at 12:01
    I have an interesting story about United Motors Service (Delco, Delco ,Remy, AC Delco, etc). .My father (George F. Kuntz) was the first United Motors Service (Delco) instructor hired when they opened the first General Motors Instruction facility in Tarrytown NY in 1955. He was one of the original instructors at the facility. The other original instructors were from Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadilac,and Fischer Body. Eventually they added on to the facility and added GMC , Frigidare and other General Motor divisions. The purpose of the Training center was to instruct "non dealership" (independent)garages, etc. how to properly maintain/repair General Motor products, so owners did not have to go to a dealership in order to have their vehicles, etc. maintained. There was no cost (as far as I knew) to attend. My dad was well loved by most attendees, as they were repeat students. He was working as the auto instructor for Christopher Columbus High School (Bronx, NY) when he was hired. He retired after 25 years of instructing at the training Center. I have many stories about his time with G.M./ Delco. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions!
  • 5
    Cary Gay Houston,Tx. 77011 February 11, 2017 at 20:46
    I think its great to have the history like this around to read, and enjoy. Being an automotive geek, and a history nut keeps good reading and interesting knowledge to learn from. Keep up the good work!
  • 6
    Allen Krodel Big Rock, IL 60511 March 4, 2017 at 19:06
    My father worked with Boss Kettering's son, Gene, at Electromotive Division of GM. Dad wound up owning Gene's 1951 Aston Martin DB 2 which is still in our family.

Join the Discussion