“Where Professionals Connect”
Charles F. Kettering—A self-starter who gave us the self-starter
By Mark Bernstein
Reprinted with the author’s permission from Smithsonian Magazine, July, 1988
"Boss" Kettering dreamed up devices that revolutionized automobiles once and for all.
The paint manufacturers were pleased with themselves. Earlier in 1920, Charles Kettering, the research chief at General Motors, had called them in and given them a dressing down because paint was such a stumbling block in the mass production of cars. In those days every sedan that rolled off the assembly line had to be painted by hand, brushstroke by brushstroke. The coats were many, the drying was slow and the whole thing took as long as 37 days.
Now the paint men had good news for Kettering. It just might be possible, they told him, to get the job done in a month. Kettering, then in his mid-40s, a long, lean, large-featured man with patience proportionate to the size of thc minds he was dealing with, was not pleased. "An hour would be more like it," he snapped.
Kettering never wanted problems improved; he wanted them solved. His first major solution had come in 1911 when, as an inventive young engineer scrounging parts in an Ohio barn, he developed the self-starter for Cadillac. Later successes-high-octane gasoline, the diesel locomotive and others-came after 1920 when he was backed by the limitless resources of General Motors (GM). Success, however, owed less to economic resources than to a rare quality that Kettering possessed in abundance, something he called "Intelligent ignorance," a kind of well-informed curiosity coupled with the persistent willingness to try, which he was now about to apply to the paint problem.
Shortly after his session with the paint manufacturers, as Kettering related during an antitrust suit against the Du Pont Company, he happened to be in New York browsing Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. There, in a jewelry store window, he spotted a wooden pin tray finished with a lacquer he'd never seen before. He bought the tray, tracked the maker of the lacquer to a backyard shed somewhere in New jersey and bought some lacquer, too. Working with Du Pont, he homogenized the lacquer with existing paints, producing a liquid, thin enough to spray, that dried-glossy and weather-resistant-in minutes.
The paint people stayed skeptical. Kettering later liked to tell the story of how he then invited one doubter to lunch, talked paint and then walked the man to the GM parking lot, where the guest confessed that he couldn't find his car. Kettering pointed to a vehicle and asked: "Isn't that yours?" "It looks like mine," the paint man replied, "but my car isn't that color." Said Kettering: "It is now."
The story typifies the resourcefulness Kettering brought to the solving of industrial problems. Those solutions are many-at his death in 1958, he was responsible for more major inventions than any American except Edison. That date, incidentally, also marks the approximate high point of American industrial supremacy. The question of how best to regain that supremacy may in part be answered by looking at how Charles Kettering, among others, first created it.
For Kettering, preconception was the trap. He scorned theorists, particularly "the slide rule boys" who, he said, would whip out their slide rules, make two calculations and often decide something was impossible. Calculations were based on theory, which, Kettering held, was merely the summary of experience, not the limit of possibility.
Birth, happenstance and experience had made Kettering empirical. Born in 1876 near Loudonville, Ohio, he grew up with a farmer's easy familiarity with the ways equipment is turned to task. Happenstance was a physical handicap, a lifelong weakness in the eyes, that made prolonged study difficult, forcing him to withdraw from Ohio State University during his freshman year. Experience followed in Ashland, Ohio. Here, as foreman of a jerry-built telephone exchange, he developed a fondness for improvisation--and an attachment to Olive Williams, a local girl who later became his wife.
Determined to get an education, Kettering reentered Ohio State, and the university bent to accommodate him. The engineering department waived the drafting, which his myopia and chronically inflamed eyes made impossible for him. His roommates protected his sight by reading each day's lessons out loud to him at night, a helpful practice that continued until Kettering's graduation, at age 27, in 1904.
The myopic young electrical engineer was recruited by Edward A. Deeds, superintendent of National Cash Register (NCR), who brought Kettering to Dayton and assigned him the task of electrifying the cash register. He succeeded, and in his five years there acquired a reputation as a leader and the name "Boss K et," mingling affection with respect, by which he would be known the rest of his life. He also showed remarkable skill in reading the market. Of his days at NCR, Kettering said later, "I didn't hang around much with other inventors or the executive fellows. I lived with the sales gang. They had some real notion of what people wanted."
By 1908, what people wanted above all else was a motorcar. The great romance of the 20th century-Americans and their automobiles-had just begun to blossom. Ed Deeds shared the passion and pointed Kettering toward the commercial possibilities. "There is a river of gold running past us," he said. "Why don't we throw out a little dam and sluice some of it our way?"
They set up shop in the barn behind Deeds' house. Still an NCR employee, Kettering could give this new project only his evenings and his weekends, and eventually almost all the Ketterings' $1,500 savings, which went to buy machine tools. Kettering's first achievement, completed in the summer of 1909, was an improved ignition system, greatly extending the life of the dry cell batteries then used in automobiles.
Deeds, the businessman of the pair, presented the device to Henry Leland, president of Cadillac. Within weeks, Leland ordered 8,000. The order caught Kettering and Deeds with not so much as a name for their firm. Scrambling, the partners subcontracted production and formed the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company. Kettering resigned from NCR; his next project would make his company better known as Delco.
Go to Page 2