Although the American engineer Charles Frederick Kettering is known primarily for his contributions to the development and evolution of the automobile, he also made valuable contributions to medicine and science. As a philanthropist, in 1927 he established the C. F. Kettering Foundation for the Study of Chlorophyll and Photosynthesis at Antioch College (Yellow Springs, Ohio), and in 1945, in collaboration with American industrialist Alfred Pritchard Sloan (1875-1966), he funded the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research at the Memorial Cancer Center in New York City. As an inventor, Kettering designed and built the “Kettering hypertherm,” a device used to treat neurosyphilis (syphilis of the brain) by intensely heating the body.
Charles F. Kettering was born on August 29, 1876, on a farm near Loudonville in north central Ohio (15 miles southeast of Mansfield). He attended a small district school near his home and the high school in Loudonville. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at Wooster Normal School in Wooster, Ohio, and at the age of 19 years, he became a country schoolteacher at Bunker Hill, Ohio. He taught for 1 year and then left to attend Ohio State University in Columbus. However, after completing his freshman year, he left school for 2 years because of an eye ailment. During this time, he worked for the Star Telephone Company in Ashland, Ohio (13 miles northeast of Mansfield). After this 2-year interval, Kettering reentered Ohio State University and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering at 27 years of age.
After he received his engineering degree, Kettering joined the National Cash Register Company (NCR) in Dayton, Ohio, where he became director of a research group. While at NCR, he invented the first electric cash register and was named chief of research and development.
In 1909 Kettering left NCR and, with Edward Andrew Deeds (died in 1960), an NCR executive, founded the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco), to design automobile electrical equipment and to develop their recently invented automobile battery ignition system. As part of this system, Kettering designed the storage battery, the voltage regulator, the generator, and the first electric starter (1911), which was introduced in Cadillacs in 1912. Electric starters eliminated the need to manually crank an engine to start it. While at Delco, Kettering also developed the Delco light, a self-contained light and power unit for farms and other places that did not have access to power lines.
In 1916 Delco became a subsidiary of United Motors Corporation, later (1919) General Motors (GM). Kettering remained with Delco and served as vice president and director of research for GM from 1920 to 1947. In 1925 he moved to Detroit, Michigan, to form GM Research Corporation, later known as the Research Laboratories Division of the General Motors Corporation. After his retirement in 1947, he remained as a consultant.
In 1914 Kettering founded the Dayton Wright Airplane Corporation, which during World War I (1914-1918) designed and built a self-guided aerial torpedo. This was a small monoplane with a highly explosive warhead and automatic controls—a direct precursor of the cruise missile. During the war, Kettering also manufactured airplane ignition systems and developed synthetic aircraft fuel.
Kettering's inventions covered many diverse fields. He contributed to the development of safety glass, crankcase ventilation systems, 4-wheel drive brakes, the nontoxic refrigerant Freon-12 (developed for GM's Frigidaire subsidiary), a process for extracting bromine from sea water, and quick-drying lacquers (for painting automobiles). In 1921 he also contributed to the development of antiknock fuels and leaded gasoline by the addition of tetraethyl lead, and in 1923 he coined the word Ethyl for high-octane gasoline. His work with high-octane fuels was in collaboration with the American chemist Thomas Midgley, Jr (1889-1944). In addition, Kettering developed a high-speed, 2-cycle diesel engine for trains. In 1951 he developed a revolutionary high-compression automobile engine, a V-8 engine (the Kettering Engine).
Kettering held more than 185 patents and was awarded honorary degrees from 29 educational institutions, including doctorates from Northwestern University, New York University, Columbia University, and Harvard University. Among his many honors was being elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
On November 25, 1958, at the age of 82 years, Charles Frederick Kettering died in Dayton, Ohio. As an inventor whose work was instrumental in the evolution of the modern automobile, he was honored on a stamp (Scott No. 380g) issued by Micronesia in 2000.
© 2012 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.