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Kettering was behind the auto innovations taken for granted today

Outside of Henry Ford and Walter Chrysler, few individuals have had as much an impact on technology as it related to the early automobile industry as Charles Kettering.

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Yet Kettering’s name today is largely unknown to the multitudes of North Americans who instantly identify Ford and Chrysler with automobiles.


This, despite the fact that Kettering’s innovations are so “understood” that without them the industry would look a lot different had he not lived.

Kettering was a General Motors engineer who was responsible for 140 patents, but is best remembered for introducing electric ignition, leaded gasoline, Freon, fast-drying paint and the high-compression engine.

With the exception of Freon and leaded gasoline, which have been banned in recent years because of their impact on the environment, Kettering’s innovations continue to be expressed in every new car and truck that’s built today.

Kettering was born in Ohio in 1876. He earned a degree in electrical engineering from Ohio State University, and worked as a researcher for National Cash Register.

(At the time, NCR was considered a “high-tech” company, and its cash registers enjoyed the support of American business. One of the NCR’s many travelling salesmen, Thomas Watson Sr., left the company in 1914 to form a competitor, International Business Machines – or IBM.)

After leaving NCR, Kettering, with two colleagues, founded the Dayton Engineering Laboratories, which was eventually taken over by GM. It became known as DELCO.

Kettering’s work with NCR carried on into DELCO, so it’s difficult to determine today what innovation can be attributed to NCR or to DELCO.

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But what is known is that Kettering was hired in 1904 at NCR to develop a tiny electrical motor for the company’s popular cash registers. The motor would be small and efficient, and capable of emitting just enough energy to allow the cash drawer to open at the push of a button. Kettering succeeded in developing a high-energy spark ignition system.

His innovation drew the attention of Henry Leland, the master engineer who had turned the Cadillac Motor Company into one of the best known and well-regarded automobile brands in the world.

But in 1909, Leland and his Cadillac (soon to be acquired by GM) shared an engineering challenge with other car companies of the day: How to start the engine of a vehicle without using the potentially dangerous hand-crank?

The challenge was both practical and economic. By 1909, almost half of the cars on American roads were powered by electric batteries, and many of those electric cars were driven by women. Women were reluctant to drive a gasoline-powered car because the car’s engines were difficult to start. Even some men were hesitant to hand-crank gasoline-powered cars. The cranks sometimes bucked backward, and the result could result in a broken arm.

Cadillac wanted to enlarge its customer base to include women, while maintaining its luxury brand image. It needed to make its ignition safer. Leland turned to Kettering to solve the problem, and Kettering turned to the small electric motor he had developed to open the drawer on a cash register.

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He realized that the challenge to start or ignite a large Cadillac engine was not unlike the challenge to open a cash drawer. What was needed was a tiny spark of electricity, just enough to provide instant ignition.

The result was a new ignition set that was remarkably efficient. Leland ordered 5,000 for the 1910 Cadillac models, but it wasn’t until the 1912 model year that Cadillacs were universally equipped with the device. It was the world’s first practical automobile self-starter.

GM purchased DELCO in 1916 and Kettering was subsequently named vice-president of General Motors Research Corporation in 1920, a position he held until 1947.

His years at GM were extremely busy. Under Kettering’s direction, GM developed and patented the use of tetraethyl lead in its gasoline in 1921. Three years later, Standard Oil of New Jersey and GM created the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation to produce and market tetraethyl lead.

Duco paint was another Kettering innovation.

Developed in concert with the DuPont Company (DuPont was a major investor in GM), the new paint was quick drying and composed of multiple colour layers. It was made especially for the automobile industry.

Prior to the introduction of Duco paint, car production was exceedingly slow. Sometimes it took a few weeks for the paint to dry on a newly-assembled car. One of the reasons why Henry Ford famously said his customers could have any color on their new Model T – so long as it was black – was because black paint dried the fastest. But Duco paint reduced the drying time to a matter of hours – for any colour.

It was also under Kettering’s direction that Freon was developed by GM, again in the 1920s. Freon was the trade name for a compound chemical that provided a practical method of refrigeration. That method was initially used for commercial refrigeration.

Kettering died in November 1958.

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