Charles Kettering’s quest for knowledge helped build better cars and better lives for millions of people. Kettering was born in 1876 in Loudonville, Ohio. He attended classes at the College of Wooster before earning his degree in electrical engineering from Ohio State University. After graduation, Kettering was hired by the National Cash Register Company (NCR) in 1904 as head of the company’s research laboratory.
While at NCR, Kettering conceived innovations like an expedited credit approval system (a forerunner to the modern credit card) as well as an electric cash register. Kettering quickly distinguished himself as a technological visionary, and one of his colleagues at NCR took notice. He asked Kettering if he was interested in working with automobiles. Around 1907, Kettering, along with a group of other NCR engineers, began gathering in a local barn. Kettering became the de facto leader of the group, and the collective set to work on improving various facets of existing automobiles. Kettering resigned from National Cash Register in 1909 and later that year, incorporated the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, or “Delco.” Delco was responsible for many automotive engineering innovations, including the electric self-starter.
It was Cadillac founder Henry Leland who asked Kettering to help perfect such a device after a friend of Leland’s was killed in 1908 by a Cadillac when its starter handle kicked back. Leland’s engineers had already built their own version of a self-starter, but it was too large for automotive use. The task fell to Kettering and his team to refine the concept. He and his employees worked tirelessly on the project over the next three years. They presented their final design to Leland in 1911, who approved it for production on the 1912 Cadillac. Delco continued to grow over the decade and was sold to General Motors in 1918. It became the foundation for GM’s Research Laboratory, of which Kettering was named vice president in 1920. Kettering remained in that position for 27 years and developed countless automotive products such as leaded gasoline.
In 1998, the General Motors Institute of Flint, MI, renamed itself Kettering University in honor of Kettering’s contributions. A talented inventor and engineer, Charles Kettering’s contributions helped jumpstart the evolution of the automobile.