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.