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Saturday, October 03, 2015

Charles F. Kettering, the self-starter

A neighboring farmer in Loudonville, Ohio, paid young Charles Franklin Kettering $14 for his help in harvesting the wheat crop. Kettering used the money to buy a mail-order telephone. Once the wait was over, he took the telephone to his room and took it apart. The avid reader was about to become one of the most important inventors in the early 20th century, despite failing eyesight that interrupted his academic career. From air conditioning to missiles, Kettering's 146 patents made life better in America -- and the millions of dollars he donated through the C.F. Kettering Foundation led to pioneering research in medicine.

Born on August 29, 1876, in Loudonville, Ohio, to Jacob and Martha Kettering, Charles Kettering suffered eye problems so severe that he suffered headaches from reading. Nevertheless he persevered and graduated from high school. He then taught science for a year at  at Bunker Hill School.

At 19, he enrolled in the Wooster Normal School -- now the College of Wooster -- but he transferred to Ohio State. His vision problems forced him to leave school. He became a foreman on a telephone line crew. Marriage and a relaxation of his vision problems led to his return to Ohio State where at 27, he received his electrical engineering degree.

National Cash Register in Dayton, Ohio, immediately hired him as a researcher, and his research paid off too. He developed an electric cash register, as well as an easy credit approval system, which was a precursor to the credit card.

But Boss Ket had bigger fish to fry. After five years and 23 patents, he and fellow researcher, Edward Deeds, bid adieu to NCR. Deeds was the engineer who had designed and built the Palace of Light factory for Shredded Wheat cereal. They formed Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, best known as Delco. Deeds handled the business side, Kettering the research. Their first project was an electric ignition for automobiles. At that time, people had to crank a car to start it, a dangerous and impractical operation. That self-starter -- introduced in 1912 by Cadillac -- made the company. Over the years, Kettering would invented a safer gasoline, a paint for automobiles, and freon, which made air conditioned cars possible.

In 1914, Kettering founded the Dayton Wright Airplane Corporation and built a self-guided aerial torpedo. This is considered the first missile. It was a small monoplane with a highly explosive warhead and automatic controls. Over the years, scientists have used this as a model, most recently for the cruise missile. Kettering also adapted his ignition system for airplanes and developed a synthetic airplane fuel.

In 1916, United Motors -- a forerunner of General Motors -- bought out Delco. By 1920, Kettering was head of GM's research, which he headed until his retirement 27 years later.

He developed an air-cooled engine. Working with Thomas Midgley, he developed leaded gasoline, which was a safety improvement at the time, in that it helped control the ignition of gasoline. Adding lead controlled the combustion. This was a genuine breakthrough in the 1920s, however 50 years later, the problems of lead air pollution became so obvious that the government banned leaded gasoline. Manufacturers switched to a more expensive but apparently healthier alternative.

"I didn't hang around much with other inventors and the executive fellows. I lived with the sales gang. They had some real notion of what people wanted," he said.

People wanted different colors for their cars, but painting cars was a problem. They had to be painted by hand, a laborious process that is likely why Henry Ford's cars came only in black.

A walk along Fifth Avenue in New York City solved that problem. Passing a jewelry shop, a wooden pin tray finished with a lacquer Kettering had never seen before attracted his eye. He bought it. Remember what he did with the mail-order telephone? Thirty years later, he did the same thing with the tray. He tracked the maker of the lacquer to a backyard shed in New Jersey. Working with Du Pont, he used the lacquer to develop a paint that was thin enough to spray, that dried-glossy and weather-resistant-in minutes.

There were skeptics of his paint. He took one to lunch and afterward back to the GM parking lot, where the man could not find his car. Kettering took the man to the man's car. The man protested that his car was not that color.

"It is now," Kettering said.

He also developed safety glass. Sorry, but I have no anecdote to go with that discovery, just that it saved thousands of lives and faces. He also developed freon, a refrigerant used to cool cars, among other things.

In the early 1930s, he developed a diesel engine for locomotives that revolutionized and revitalized the railroad industry. It took a lot of coal smoke out of the atmosphere. He later adapted his diesel advances to cars and trucks.

Kettering said he had an "intelligent ignorance," which meant he did not accept convention. He kept his curiosity going.

"For Kettering, preconception was the trap. He scorned theorists, particularly 'the slide rule boys' who, he said, would whip out their slide rules, make two calculations and often decide something was impossible. Calculations were based on theory, which, Kettering held, was merely the summary of experience, not the limit of possibility," biographer Mark Bernstein wrote.

He died in Dayton at 82 on November 25, 1958. Today we remember him for the foundation he established with his new wealth in 1927. It is just as well. The lives and limbs and eyes he saved were numerous but overlooked today. Ah, but a charitable foundation people can understand well. Some say the good works of a man are interred with his bones.

I disagree.


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  1. I understood Fords were black because it was the fastest drying color, so it worked for his assembly line.

  2. Only live 35 miles from there and been to Kettering hundreds of times, I had no idea about the guy the town was named after. Thanks for the info.