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Early in 1910, a woman's car stalled on Belle Isle Bridge in Detroit. With minor gallantry, a passing motorist named Byron T. Carter offered to restart it for her. Rolling up his sleeves, he inserted the handcrank and, bracing his legs, gave it the kind of furious turn required to start a car in those days. Cranking a car, it used to be said, "required the strength of a Samson, the cunning of Ulysses and the speed of Hermes." On this particular occasion, the gods were against gallantry-the crank snapped back, breaking Carter's jaw; complications set in and he died.
The death greatly troubled Henry Leland: the car was a Cadillac and, besides, Carter had been a friend and fellow car manufacturer. The automaker approached Kettering, hoping he could develop a safe alternative to crank starting.
Kettering solved the problem by increasing it in scale. He assumed an electric motor could crank an engine. More important, he realized that once the engine was running, the starting motor could serve as a generator as well. The addition of a storage battery would complete a system that would start the car, generate electricity for lighting and ignition, and store excess electricity for future starting. In short, essentially the system used to this day.
Many others had already tried electric self-starting. They had all falled, Kettering concluded, because they had mounted the motor directly on the engine. What this meant was that the motor was geared to the engine at a one-to-one ratio, without any mechanical advantage.
Kettering set up a Cadillac engine on a concrete pad poured on the dirt floor of Deeds' barn. He borrowed a 1/4-horsepower electric motor and tracked down some sprocket wheels and chains. He used these to manipulate the gear ratio between the electric motor and the engine, until the former had the mechanical advantage it needed-about 20:1. Kettering's cobbled-together creation looked like a refugee from a farm implements auction, but it worked.
What had been proved possible now had to be made practical. That task fell largely to the "barn gang," a cluster of young technicians, many of them moonlighting from NCR or NCR alumni, whom Kettering recruited and set to work in the corners of Deeds' barn, There the crew designed, drafted, machined, wired and wound each component required for Kettering's new starting/lighting/ignition system.
Speed was crucial. Many inventive competitors were already in the field. Besides, Leland needed Kettering's system in time for his 1912 models. One of the crew recalled, "We didn't know about 5 Rm. All we knew was light and dark." They just met the deadline, the last few days working around the clock.
Introduced by Cadillac, the selfstarter made the handcrank instantly obsolete. Kettering's system was probably the most important single step toward making the motorcar practical for everyone. Delco boomed with demand for the starters. Within two years employment jumped from a handful to 1,500.
With prosperity, Kettering could settle Olive and their 5-year-old son Eugene into Ridgeleigh Terrace, a handsome, gray, wood and fieldstone house south of Dayton. Olive Kettering made it a gathering point for Dayton society, who in turn became the audience for her husband's elaborate practical jokes. At one company party, Kettering claimed he could fire a rifle so accurately the bullet would split on a knife's edge, with the halves extinguishing candles set to either side. He did so, to awed and enthusiastic response. The candles had actually been blown out by tiny bellows hidden in their holders.
Engineering projects multiplied. In addition to Delco, Kettering and Deeds formed one company to mass produce generating systems for farm lighting, a second to build aircraft engines and combat planes for World War I, and a third for pure research. Boss Ket was no businessman-he didn't dislike administration, he ignored it. His secretary at Delco had standing instructions to tell unexpected callers he was dead.
In 1919, Kettering and Deeds decided to accept a series of buyout offers from General Motors. Though prepared to pay for the body of Kettering's work, GM was mainly interested in his brains. The company wanted Kettering to head a new research division. He accepted the post, one he would hold for more than a quarter-century.
Logically, Kettering used to say, industrialists and researchers were allies, but reality wasn't a party to the agreement. "Looking at any research problem," he said, "the general tendency is to make it too ingrown. . . . by that I mean referring to research as the solving of manufacturing difficulties only, and not the bigger problems of the future."
On joining GM, Kettering had demanded the right to pretty much pick which problems to pursue. He chose three. With the first, auto paints, he was entirely successful, bringing speed and a weather-resistant gloss to the glacially slow world of auto finishes. His second effort was an experimental air-cooled engine that would bypass all the fuss about radiators that boiled over or froze, but there he met major disaster. In 1923 the project came to an end as a $31 million write-off. It was not until the 1940s that Volkswagen became the first company to successfully market mass-produced, air-cooled automobiles.
In some ways, though, engine knock was the most challenging problem of all. Knock is a failure of gasoline combustion that causes a rattling sound and robs an engine of pulling power. When Kettering approached the problem, knock was the ceiling to all efforts to raise engine performance. The phenomenon itself, however, was little understood. For a long time no one was sure whether knock was a fault in the engine or a fault in the fuel.
One of Kettering's researchers, Thomas Midgley, was the man who finally demonstrated that engine knock was a fuel problem, but the discovery posed some difficulties. For one thing, fuel was not directly the business of General Motors. For another, neither Midgley, a mechanical engineer by training, nor Kettering was an expert in fuel chemistry.
Characteristically, Kettering surmounted both difficulties by ignoring them. Although GM did not produce fuel, its products, its business and its customers suffered the impact of fuel problems-which was more than sufficent reason to continue. Kettering always suspected experts who seemed to him too pleased with, or limited by, what they already knew to learn much of anything else. He figured that Midgley--who possessed Kettering's prized quality, "intelligent ignorance"--might do better.
So it proved. Pondering why kerosene knocked worse than gasoline, Midgley hypothesized that it was because kerosene was lighter in color. Chemically, the idea was ridiculous. Knowing little chemistry, Midgley tried to reduce knock by dyeing kerosene with iodine, the stuff most people then rubbed on wounds as an antiseptic. Iodine didn't eliminate knock, but it diminished it.
Further experiment, of course, showed that color had nothing to do with it. But something in the iodine was clearly suppressing engine knock. A two-year "scientific fox hunt" followed, in shearch of a commercially feasible knock suppressant. Dozens were developed and tested It wasn't until December 1921 that Kettering researcher Carroll Hochwalt poured a half-ounce of a newly synthesized compound into the lab's test engine. The liquid, tetraethyl lead, proved to have 40 times the knock resistance of iodine. "Hell," Hochwalt said later, "it was 'Eureka?'"
The research team and the Boss had hardly started celebrating when it turned out that tetraethyl lead damaged exhaust valves. Adding bromine prevented this damage but the element was not abailable in sufficient quantities. Kettering sought a supply far and wide. He sent a chemist to the Dead Sea to learn if bromine might be extracated from the salt there, and then traveled to French Tunisia to investigate bromine mining operations firsthand. He even shipped 25 barrels of the Atlantic back to his labs to see if the oceans might be a source. And seawater rich in bromine, yielded the answer. Triumphantly, Kettering leased a freighter and cruised up and down the New jersey coast, extracting his final ingredient at very low cost.
Tetraethyl lead created high-octane gasoline, and this in turn permitted introduction of high-compression engines. These were much more efficient that earlier engines--an improvement, Kettering claimed in 1958, that was theoretically saving American consumers from $5 billion to $8 billion a year.
When Kettering joined General Motors in 1920, the sales figures and efficiency of GM's array of vehicles ])adly ti ailed Henry Ford's single Model T. By 1927, the organizational brilliance of GM's celebrated president, Alfred P. Sloloan jr., coupled with a plethora of improvements from Kettering's busy lab, had helped drive the Model T into retirement. With a Ford, went the inevitable wisecrack you could have any color you wanted provided it was black. At GM, you could have all sorts of colors. And you could have higher hoursepower for more zoom, and the new "balloon" tires for a smoother ride, as well as all the other improvements that made each year's model comfier than last year's.
Americans loved it, turning the nation into the world's first automotive society. To the Boss, this was the test that mattered; not results in the laboratory, but response in the marketplace, which Kettering unquestioningly believed consumers ruled. Once the public saw something better, Kettering held, it would settle for nothing less. Henry Ford once told Kettering that the Model T would never adopt a self-starter. Kettering replied, "Mr. Ford, that is something you yourself are not going to have anything to say about."
Kettering's sense of the market meshed with his grasp of unfolding technological capability. He was broadly rather than deeply knowledgeable, a synthesizer who could, an associate said, "visualize how things ought to go and push them that way."
General Motors followed Iiis lead. As early as 1928, Kettering persuaded fuel researcher Midgley to look for a safe, effective refrigerant. Midgley developed freon gas, which made a household word out of a struggling division called Frigidaire. Kettering began tinkering with the diesel engines on his yacht, the "Olive K," and half a dozen years later presented the world with the first lightweight, highspeed diesel locomotive.
Kettering believed that, although in the world the inventor must move arid shake, in the lab his task often was to ask questions, listen and encourage. Here, contrast with Edison is instructive. Edison was a terrier; he'd snag hold of a problem and wrestle it into exhausted submission. Kettering could be a terrier too, once he had an idea to pursue. But he believed that a problem was more than willing to be solved, provided the researcher remembered who was boss, by which he meant the problem, not himself. The only difference between a problem and a solution, he used to say, is that people understand the solution. Solutions only involve a change in perception, since the solution must have existed all along -within the problem itself. A researcher, hc argued, was there not to master the problem but to make it give birth to its solution.
The diesel locomotive was a case in point. "We didn't design it," Kettering said. "All we did was run errands for it. We said to the engine: 'Now here are half a dozen pistons, you tell us which one you like. And here's half a dozen valves; try 'em out.' We let the engine evaluate things for four or five years, and finally we put it together. I said, 'If that engine doesn't work it's not our fault.'"
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