Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Kettering, Charles

Charles Franklin Kettering is best known as the founder of Delco and inventor of the electric starter for cars, a major step in increasing automobile sales to the general public. He was born near Loudonville, Ohio on August 29, 1876. Kettering studied mechanical and electrical engineering at Ohio State University, receiving his degree at the age of 28. 

Upon graduation Kettering was hired as an experimental engineer at the National Cash Register Company (NCR) in Dayton, Ohio. He worked there for five years and created a low-cost printing cash register, an electric cash register, an accounting machine for banks, and a system that allowed sales clerks to quickly check a customer’s credit. While at NCR, he also worked on the side, developing a better ignition system for automobiles.

In 1909, with the help of NCR’s general manager, Colonel Edward A. Deeds, he organized the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco). At Delco, Kettering, tasked by Cadillac founder Henry Leland to improve upon the hand crank for starting a car, invented the electric starter in 1912. He also improved automobile lighting systems and developed a dependable way for farms to generate electricity. In 1916, Delco became a branch of the United Motors Corporation, an automotive parts and accessories company that was acquired by General Motors in 1918. Kettering became the head of the new General Motors Research Corporation in Dayton, becoming a vice president of GM in 1920. In 1925, the research labs were transferred to Detroit and Kettering and his wife moved to the city, living in the Book Cadillac Hotel until his retirement.

Charles Kettering was head of General Motors Research for 27 years and he acquired 186 patents in his name. His other notable creations include the development of ethyl leaded gasoline, the development of the refrigerant Freon, the development of faster-drying and more durable lacquer finishes for automobiles, and the creation of the lightweight diesel engine. Kettering retired from General Motors in 1947 but remained a research adviser until his death on November 25, 1958 in Dayton.

As a philanthropist, Kettering founded the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research with General Motors chairman Alfred P. Sloan in 1945. The General Motors Institute (originally the Flint Institute of Technology), an automotive trade school for factory workers, was renamed the Kettering Institute in 1998. In a curious coincidence, the Kettering Institute archives are now housed in Durant-Dort Factory One, the birthplace of GM.



Charles Kettering, c.1925 - 2012.032.313

Charles Kettering (middle-right) with other automotive industry leaders, 1955 - 2012.032.212

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