Electric starter’s inventor Kettering was no crank

As you start your car with a key or button and turn on the A/C in the late summer heat, you might want to pause for a moment to remember the man who made both of those things possible—and helped put women behind the wheel.

Today’s date, August 29, is the birthday of Charles Kettering: engineer, inventor, and longtime head of research and development for General Motors. In his lifetime, Kettering was awarded at least 140 patents, ranging from an early automobile ignition system to an incubator for premature infants. Perhaps the most important of his inventions, because of its social impact, was the electric self-starter, first offered on the 1912 Cadillac.

Born in Loudonville, Ohio, in 1876, Kettering spent the first part of his career in education, but he was so fascinated by electricity that he spent his first teacher’s paycheck on a telephone. He proceeded to disassemble the hand-cranked phone (and its DC generator) and put it back together in perfect working order. Returning to school, Kettering earned a degree in electrical engineering at Ohio State University and was then hired into National Cash Register in Dayton, where he had a hand in designing the first cash register that opened with the help of an electric motor.

In 1908, Kettering’s friend Edward Deeds asked for Kettering’s help completing a kit car. In the early days of the automobile, cars’ electrical systems were primitive and not very reliable. Ignition systems barely worked and acetylene gas was a more reliable source of lighting than electricity. Kettering designed a new high-energy spark ignition for Deeds’ car. It worked so well that the two men started the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, later known as Delco, to exploit the rapidly growing automobile industry.

Time magazine cover January, 9 1933
Time magazine cover January, 9 1933 Time

Getting a reliable spark to ignite fuel was only one challenge early motorists faced. The vast majority of motorcars with internal combustion engines had to be hand-started with a crank. When you consider, for example, that a Model T’s inline-four-cylinder engine had about 2.5 liters of displacement—and more luxurious automobiles typically had much bigger engines—hand-cranking a car was a challenge, and a dangerous one at that. Many women simply didn’t have the upper body strength for the task, and many men were injured, sometimes fatally.

In 1910, Henry Leland was running Cadillac (this was before he had a spat with Billy Durant and left General Motors to start Lincoln). A friend of Leland’s, Byron Carter, had stopped while driving across the bridge to Belle Isle in the Detroit River to help a woman whose car had stalled on the bridge. She couldn’t hand-crank the car, so Carter gallantly tried himself. Unfortunately, the engine backfired, spinning the heavy iron crank into Carter’s jaw and breaking it. Carter’s jaw got infected, sepsis set in, and he died.

Carter’s death weighed heavily on Leland, particularly because the car in question had been a Cadillac. Leland approached Kettering about developing a safer alternative. Others had tried various self-starting mechanisms, even electric motors, but Kettering attacked the problem holistically. Realizing that a DC starter motor could also function as a generator once the engine was running, Kettering designed an integrated electrical system that spun the engine to start it, provided spark for ignition, and made sufficient electrical power for lighting and recharging the starter battery. That’s essentially the same electrical system used in most cars today, though the generating and starting functions have usually been split into two dedicated components. However, many mild hybrid cars today do use a combination starter/generator just as Kettering originally did. Unlike other early electric starters, Kettering’s starter had reduction gears between itself and the engine’s crankshaft, providing mechanical advantage and keeping the motor and battery reasonably sized.

1912 Cadillac Model Thirty Ad
1912 Cadillac Model Thirty Ad GM

Leland had Kettering’s starting system installed on the 1912 Cadillac and the inventor was granted a U.S. patent for it three years later. It can be argued that it was one of the most socially significant patents in U.S. history. You see, nearly every account of Kettering’s life and inventions credits his electric self-starter for making it possible for most women to drive. By the second decade of the 20th century, women’s liberation was in the air and suffragettes would succeed in convincing men to give women the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. Many women started careers. However, without personal transportation that they could start themselves, women were still pretty much homebound. Some social historians consider the relaxed mores of the “Roaring ’20s” to have been a side effect of women driving.

Having lost control of GM in 1910, Durant started Chevrolet in 1911 and a holding company named United Motors in 1916, which bought Delco the same year. Two years later, Durant, with the backing of the DuPont family, would regain financial control of GM, bringing United Motors’ holdings, including Delco, into General Motors. Kettering was part of the package. He would eventually be named a senior vice-president of the automaker, in charge of R&D from 1920–1947.

U.S. Patent Office Kettering ignition
U.S. Patent Office

While the electric self-starter was Kettering’s most notable invention, he also had a role in developing variable speed transmissions, high-compression engines, and quick-drying automotive paint. Outside of the auto industry, Kettering had an interest in medicine, helping to develop the aforementioned incubator as well as treatments for fevers and venereal disease.

Although many of his inventions have made the lives of millions of people easier, Kettering is tied to some controversy. He had a major role in the development of tetra-ethyl lead, a gasoline additive that prevented pre-ignition knock, allowing for more powerful, high-compression engines. Leaded gasoline was banned in 1996 due to concerns about lead poisoning, a problem that Kettering had to be aware of, as there were multiple fatalities due to industrial accidents involving the additive while production was ramped up.

If that wasn’t enough to sully Kettering’s reputation with environmentalists, he also helped develop the fluorocarbon refrigerant known as Freon, originally considered a better, safer chemical to use than the sometimes fatal ammonia it replaced. The original formulations of Freon were changed due to concerns about depleting the atmosphere’s ozone layer, and today we think of Freon as a greenhouse gas.

Still, you have to consider a person in his or her totality. In addition to his society-changing and sometimes controversial inventions, Charles Kettering undoubtedly had a desire to help others. He was instrumental in the founding of two colleges, the Flint Institute of Technology and the General Motors Institute, GM’s long-time in-house engineering and business management school, now Kettering University. In 1945, he and GM chairman Alfred Sloan established the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York City, still one of the world’s leading cancer treatment centers. Kettering died in Dayton in 1958. 

Few enjoy both the opportunity and the genius to make such a lasting impact on a single industry, let alone the wide range of projects Kettering helped to shape. Happy birthday, Charles.

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