Charles F. Kettering

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Charles F. Kettering: Biography


Born: 29 August 1876

Died: 25 November 1958

Early Life and Career

Charles Franklin Kettering , born on 29 August 1876, on a farm near Loudonville, Ohio, taught three years in country and small-town schools to finance his higher education. Entering Ohio State University at age 22, he dropped out in his sophomore year because of poor eyesight. He worked two years as a telephone lineman, then returned to Ohio State, graduating at age 28 in 1904. 

Upon receiving his degree, Kettering became an experimental engineer with National Cash Register Company (NCR) in Dayton. During his five years with NCR he created a low-cost printing cash register; electrified the cash register, doing away with the hand crank; developed a system that tied charge phones to cash registers; and originated an accounting machine for banks.

Work with the Automotive Industry

Having developed a better ignition system for autos while working "on the side" for NCR, Kettering, with the financial backing of NCR's general manager Col. Edward A. Deeds and other capitalists, organized Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco) in 1909. That year an order from Cadillac for 8,000 ignition systems led to creation of an electric starter, first offered on Cadillac cars in 1912 and on many more makes the following year. In addition to working on the self-starter, Kettering and Delco also improved auto lighting systems and developed a dependable means of generating electricity on farms. Meantime, Delco became a sizable manufacturing firm, as well as a research facility.

In 1915 Colonel Deeds, a top-notch administrator, joined Delco, complementing Kettering who preferred to devote himself to research. In 1916 Delco, in exchange for nine million dollars, became a subsidiary of United Motors Corporation, an automotive parts and accessories combine. United Motors, in turn, was acquired by General Motors (GM) in 1918. Kettering was invited to organize and direct General Motors Research Corporation, headquartered in Dayton at the inventor's insistence. The labs were incorporated as General Motors Research Corporation in 1920, at which time Kettering -simultaneously named a GM vice-president and board member- agreed to move the bulk of research activity to Detroit. In 1925, when the labs were transferred to a new 11-story building, Kettering and his family moved to Detroit, occupying a suite atop the Motor City's tallest hotel until Kettering's retirement.

File:Home refridgeration.jpg
Refrigerators used Freon until it was banned for environmental reasons in 1980s

As head of GM's research function for 27 years, Kettering guided research on and the improvement of many products, acquiring 140 patents in his name. His most notable achievements included the development of "Ethyl" leaded gasoline to eliminate engine knock; the high-compression automobile engine; the non-toxic, non-inflammable refrigerant "Freon"; and faster-drying and longer-lasting finishes for automobiles. He also created the lightweight diesel engine, which, in one of its applications, revolutionized the motive power of railroads.

Service and Awards

In addition to earning acclaim as a scientist and engineer, Kettering was highly regarded as a public speaker and social philosopher. "I am for the double-profit system," he said, "a reasonable profit for the manufacturer and a much greater profit for the customer." He retired from General Motors in 1947, while continuing to serve as a director and research consultant. He received more than three dozen honorary doctor's degrees and additional dozens of awards, citations, and medals. He was awarded the AIEE Edison Medal in 1958 "For invention, research and development in the broad fields of industry, engineering, transportation, medicine, education, energy and power resulting in service to all mankind."


Kettering married Olive Williams of Ashland, Ohio, in 1905, and they had one son, Eugene Williams. Kettering died in Dayton on 25 November 1958. His name is memorialized in the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, which he organized for medical research in 1927, and the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, founded by GM chairman Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. in 1945.