Charles Kettering: Automotive Pioneer

Unless you’re an automobile historian, you’ve probably never heard about Charles Kettering. You do know some of his inventions, though. He was the guy behind such things as the automotive ignition systems, starter motors and even Freon gas. He was also the founder of DELCO Corporation, a well-known automotive parts manufacturer now owned by General Motors.

Born in the Midwest

In 1876, Kettering was born in Loudonville, Ohio. His childhood was a good one, although he often suffered from headaches as a child. He attended the public schools in Loudonville and after graduation studied electrical engineering at Ohio State University. Kettering graduated with honors from Ohio State in 1904.

National Cash Register

Kettering’s first job out of engineering school was with National Cash Register. He wasn’t there long before he accomplished his first major project. It was a simplified credit approval system that allowed merchants to easily extend credit to customers without lengthy delays and paperwork. In many ways, this system was an early precursor to today’s credit card processing systems.

In 1907, NCR colleague Edward A. Deeds — a natural inventor who enjoyed working at night on various engineering projects — invited Kettering to join him moonlighting. Among Deeds’ numerous projects were technical improvements for the then-developing automobile business. Together, their first major automotive invention was an electric ignition system designed to eliminate the then-standard magneto system. This invention was a huge success, and in 1909, they left NCR and founded Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (DELCO.)

The Electric Starter

Early cars were all started by hand crank, a dangerous technique. Here’s why: If the ignition timing wasn’t adjusted right, the crank could kick back. As the story goes, a good friend of Kettering’s was hit by a back-firing hand crank and killed. Kettering immediately vowed that no one would ever be killed again attempting to start a car. In 1911, DELCO installed the first electric starter motor in a Cadillac. It was a success and soon other manufacturers followed suit.

Safe Refrigeration

In the late 1800s through the 1920s, refrigeration systems used various toxic compounds as refrigerants. One of them, methyl chloride gas, was especially potent and deaths from leaking systems was not uncommon. In 1928, Thomas Midgley and Kettering invented a refrigerant that worked just as well but wasn’t toxic. They called this refrigerant Freon and it quickly changed the industry. Unfortunately, the original Freon, referred to as R-12, was identified as a destroyer of the Earth’s ozone layer decades later. Our service consultants at Len Stoler Hyundai of Owings Mills, a local Hyundai dealer in Ownings Mill, MD, told us that Hyundai phased out the old R-12 Freon in the early 2000s and is now using a more environmentally-friendly Freon called R-134a.

His legacy

Kettering’s inventions, especially the electric automobile starter, made him rich, and in his forties, he began a life of philanthropy. In 1945, he helped found what became the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, based on the premise that American industrial research techniques could be applied to cancer research. Today, the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center is a huge institution that has been responsible for hundreds of advances in cancer medicine.

Kettering died on November 25, 1958. After his death, his body was interred in the mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio.