Charles Kettering – Automotive Pioneer

Here’s a historic name you don’t hear very often: Charles Kettering. Kettering was the genius behind some of the most significant advances in automotive engineering. Things such as the ignition systems, starter motors and even Freon gas are all attributable to Charles Kettering He was also the founder of  DELCO Corporation, a well-known automotive parts manufacturer.

In 1876, Kettering was born in Loudonville, Ohio. He had poor vision and because of this, his childhood was consumed with constant headaches. However, he was quite intelligent and after his secondary school education was completed, he became a teacher. Later, he studied electrical engineering at Ohio State University (OSU) and graduated in 1904

Kettering first job out of engineering school was with National Cash Register (NCR.) He was by nature an innovative engineer and it wasn’t long before he achieved his first major development: an easy credit approval system. In many ways, this was a precursor to today’s credit card processing systems. Soon after that, he developed an electric version of the standard cash register which made ringing up sales much easier for sales clerks.

In 1907, NCR colleague Edward A. Deeds invited Kettering to join him working at night on improvements for automobiles. Working nights and weekends, their first invention was an electric ignition system designed to eliminate the magneto. This invention was a huge success and in 1909, they left NCR and founded Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (DELCO.)

The early cars were all started by hand crank. It was a technique that was dangerous. Here’s why: If the ignition timing wasn’t adjusted right, the crank could kick back and hit you. As the story goes, a good friend of Kettering’s was hit by a hand crank and killed. Kettering immediately vowed that no one would ever be killed again attempting to start a car. On February 17, 1911, the first electric starting motor was installed in a Cadillac. Soon, all the other manufacturers followed suit.

In the late 1800s until 1929, refrigerators used various toxic refrigerants. Methyl chloride gas was especially potent and deaths from leaking systems was not uncommon. In 1928, Thomas Midgley, Jr. and Kettering invented a refrigerant that was safe to use. They called this refrigerant “Freon” and it quickly changed the industry. Unfortunately, the original Freon, referred to as R-12, has been identified as a destroyer of the Earth’s ozone layer. Our service consultants at Roberts Subaru of Downington, a local Subaru dealer in Downington, PA, told us that Subaru phased out the old R-12 freon in the early 2000s and is now using an environmentally-friendly Freon called R-134a. Had Kettering known about the ozone issue, he would have undoubtedly created a replacement for R-12 himself.

His inventions, especially the electric automobile starter, made him Kettering rich. 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. Kettering died on November 25, 1958. After his death, his body was interred in the mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio.