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Accomplishments of Charles Kettering

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By pauleckler
July 18, 2008

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"Professional Amateur: The Biography of Charles Franklin Kettering," by TA Boyd, Dutton, NY, 1957, with a forward by Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. This 232-page hardback tells the story of one of America's creative geniuses. Kettering was the inventor of numerous early auto technologies including the self starter. Later he was VP of Research at General Motors. He was a farm kid made good. He was known for his witticisms and clever sayings. His swearing is said to have created new language. He was the hands-on style of inventor, who worked hard for long hours. He was a great salesman and had the respect of key executives, but he could also relate to workers on the line. He was noted for crawling under cars to find the problem-even if dressed in a business suit.

Kettering was born Aug 29, 1876, on a farm near Loudonville, OH. He attended a one-room rural school, and then high school in Loudonville. He taught school several years before entering Ohio State University to study electrical engineering, but he worked for a telephone company installing telephone lines in the summer. On graduation in 1904, he went to work for National Cash Register Co., in Dayton, a leading employer in the area. NCR had been founded by John H. Patterson to manufacture a primitive cash register designed by others. Meanwhile, the Wright Brothers invented the airplane nearby. Dayton seems to have been a bustling Silicon Valley in this era.

Kettering's first invention was the OK Charge Phone which used a telephone connection to approve credit purchases. (This sounds like an early credit card reader device.) Success of this device gave him exposure to NCR's sales force. Kettering attended NCR's famous sales training program. (Thomas Watson Sr., founder of IBM, got his sales experience at NCR.)

His second invention what the electric motor drive for the cash register-- replacing a hand crank. He realized that a small, short-duty motor could be made to work-contrary to guidelines of the day. He also used a clutch mechanism to stop the shaft at the precise position needed for accurate addition. Next came a low cost spring powered cash register. That was followed by a mechanism to allow accounting machines to add and subtract using a single motor.

In 1909, he resigned to set up his own company, Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co., later Delco, in Dayton. Kettering and a few co-workers began working evenings to improve electrical equipment for automobiles in 1908, while working on the accounting machine in the daytime. Cadillac Motors was dissatisfied with its ignition system. Neither the magneto nor the battery systems of the time were reliable. Kettering came up with an improved battery/coil system which he called an ignition relay. (This sounds like he invented the ignition coil/points system.) Henry Leland of Cadillac ordered 8000 of the new ignition sets in July, 1909. Kettering's company was formed soon after.

Kettering began working on the electric self starter for Cadillac in 1910. The first test unit was delivered Feb 17, 1911. Leland ordered 12,000 units for the 1912 Cadillac. Within two years, self starters had been added to Hudson, Packard, Cole, Oldsmobile, Oakland, and Jackson automobiles. Kettering's friends gradually joined the company as it grew. In 1916, Kettering sold Delco to United Motors division of General Motors for $9MM. Kettering knew the Wright Brothers and got a flight in one of their early planes. The Kettering home in Dayton, Ridgeleigh Terrace, was built in this time frame. It is thought to have been the first air conditioned home in America.

Kettering sought to bring electric power to the farm (and his mother) in 1913, long before REA brought in wires. His system, called Delco Light, consisted of an engine, batteries, and a generator operating at 32 v. that would light 40 to 50 bulbs. His lighting system operated from batteries, but when battery power fell below critical levels, the motor would start automatically and recharge the batteries. The Delco Light engine was single cylinder, air cooled and initially ran on gasoline. At $275 each, sales reached $2.5MM in 1916. Engine knock became a problem when insurance companies required a change to kerosene for greater safety. Reducing engine compression resolved the knock problem, but also reduced power.

In 1916, Delco set up a separate laboratory for longer term research. Thomas Midgley, a recent graduate of Cornell University, was hired to look into the knock problem (to address the Delco Light problem and to counter competitors claims that the Delco ignition system caused knocking). Iodine, aniline, and then smelly selenium compounds were the first effective antiknock additives, but they had practical limitations. Delco came up with a 75 octane (vs 55 typical) aviation fuel for Liberty aircraft during World War I. It was cyclohexane made by hydrogenation of benzene over a (primitive?) nickel catalyst, but the war ended before production could begin. Benzene came from coke oven gases. This was before development of chemicals from oil (petrochemicals) in the ‘20s.

A primitive pilotless buzz-bomb (apparently somewhat like the V-1) was developed at Dayton-Wright Airplane Co. where Kettering was an officer, but the bomb was too late for the war.

In 1919, Kettering was offered the head position at the newly created General Motors Research Corporation. (He was promoted to VP in Jan, 1920.) At first he declined, but agreed with reluctance provided the position would remain in Dayton. During the next four years, antiknock and copper clad engine were major research endeavors. The air-cooled, copper clad was produced for Chevrolet at the end of 1922. A total of 3000 were delivered to customers, but they were recalled and replaced by water cooled models. PS DuPont resigned and was replaced by Alfred P. Sloan, Jr as president of General Motors.

The copper clad program was probably Kettering's greatest failure. Apparently he was disheartened for months afterward, but in the end the conclusion was that the division charged with making and selling the car lacked confidence in the concept. The handoff from research to manufacturing had been botched. Kettering thought the problems could be fixed, but eventually accepted the inevitable. The technology later contributed to the air cooled compressor for Frigidaire's refrigerator.

Soon after creation of GM Research, solving the knock problem became a major objective. The discovery that tellurium compounds were more effective than selenium gave a hint that materials lower in the Periodic Table of the Elements worked better. That resulted in the study of lead compounds once one was found that was soluble in gasoline. On December 9, 1921, experiments found that tetraethyllead was 50 times more effective than aniline as an antiknock compound. Later it became apparent that lead compounds left a residue in the engine. The final Ethyl fluid contained red dye for identification and bromine and chlorine compounds as lead scavengers. Experimental sales began in 1923. First sales were made at a filling station in Dayton. Standard Oil of Indiana soon agreed to distribute Ethyl gas. In August, 1924, Ethyl Corporation was formed as a joint venture between GM and Standard Oil of New Jersey. (DuPont owned 25-30% of GM stock at the time.) Kettering continued as president of Ethyl for a while. Studies to learn if leaded gas was safe to the public indicated no detectable effects.

Leaded gasoline made possible 100 octane aviation fuel in World War II. After the war, Kettering had a high compression auto engine built to investigate advantages. Doubling the typical compression ratio to 12.5:1 raised gas mileage by 35 to 45%.

Next GM Research developed a harmonic balancer for auto crankshafts. This device greatly reduced engine vibration. With the help of DuPont a new fast drying paint system was developed for the 1923 model year. Finishing time for a painted auto body was reduced from two weeks or more to a single shift.

The years in Dayton had been pleasant, but Kettering and associates made frequent trips to Detroit for interaction with the rest of GM. In 1925, he realized that keeping GM Research in Dayton was a mistake. The operation was relocated to the new GM Research Center in Detroit. Kettering and wife retained their home in Dayton, but moved in as residents of the Book-Cadillac Hotel in Detroit.

Freon was developed as a non-toxic, non-flammable refrigerant gas for Frigidaire through the efforts of Thomas Midgley and DuPont.

Kettering was interested in yachting, probably because it was one of the few practical uses of the then cumbersome four-cycle diesel engines. A second "Olive K" yacht was built to his specifications in the late 1920s. Kettering often entertained associates on the yacht, but he was famous for disappearing sometimes for hours to correct some detail in the operation of its diesel engines. The builder of those engines, Winton Engine Co. of Cleveland, eventually was acquired by GM (as was EMD at about the same time). A more efficient two-cycle diesel was developed. Two 600 hp models were to power the GM exhibit at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. Ralph Budd of the Burlington Railroad became aware of the engines and wanted them for his Zephyr streamliners. The first train was completed by Electro-Motive Division of GM in 1934. Success of the first Zephyrs resulted in design and construction of the first diesel switch engine, completed in June, 1935. Construction of the new EMD plant in LaGrange, IL soon followed. With experience, passenger and freight locomotives were added to the line. Railroads responded enthusiastically to their lower operating costs and greater efficiencies.

Prior to GM's development of the two-cycle diesel, the US Navy had bought its diesels from foreign suppliers. The first GM diesel supplied to the Navy was used in the submarine USS Shark, constructed in the 1930s. It was powered by four 1300 hp diesels. Pike, Tarpon, and Porpoise soon followed.

Kettering worked at being a good citizen. He and associate Edward Deeds contributed the Dayton Engineers Club building in Dayton in 1917. In 1924, he was pressed to accept the Chairmanship of Board of the Winters National Bank and Trust Company in Dayton. The bank prospered and became largest in Dayton. Kettering took an interest in medical research. In 1927, he created the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. He funded artificially induced fever research in Dayton, cancer research at Washington University in St. Louis, and from 1945, with Alfred Sloan, Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York.

Charles F. Kettering retired as the head of research at GM in 1947. He died in 1958.