Delco-Light Farm Electric Plant

1916 -1947


Despite a virtual explosion in the quantity and variety of electrical use in the cities and larger towns, the rest of America, encompassing vast areas of the nation, did not have access to electricity. In 1910, when the population of the United States was 92 million and 54 percent lived in rural areas, electricity was virtually unheard of for farms, cabins, and buildings of any kind that were located far from the cities. Flame lamps, hand pumps for drawing water, and outhouses were the norm. An occasional windmill for the more fortunate would pump water when the wind was blowing. That was all about to change through the genius of American inventor Charles Franklin Kettering.

Kettering, who became affectionately known as “Boss Ket,” was a teacher, engineer, scientist, inventor, mentor, businessman, leader, and humanitarian. The impact of his efforts over a life of service, as huge as it was, is not as well known as it should be. This is especially true of his accomplishments to provide electricity to farms and remote places. Born in Ohio in 1876, Kettering, an avid reader who suffered from severe eyestrain, was fascinated by all things electrical. With money he earned from his first job he bought a telephone and immediately took it apart to understand how it worked. After graduating from Ohio State University with an electrical engineering degree in 1904, he began his career at the National Cash Register Co. where he developed a “breakthrough” electric motor to eliminate the crank handle that was so difficult to operate on cash registers at the time. In 1909, Kettering and business associate Edward Deeds formed the Dayton Engineering Laboratory Co., which became more commonly known as Delco. Their first task was to develop an electric starter for the automobile to eliminate the feared hand crank sticking out of the radiator. In doing so, he developed the basic automobile electric system used in cars, as well as trucks, buses, motorcycles, and virtually every type of vehicle that moves today. It consisted of a generator, rechargeable battery, and an electric starter motor with electric lights thrown in as a bonus. The radio came later. Gone were the hand cranks, magnetos, dry cell primary batteries, and flame headlamps. Fitted as standard equipment on the 1912 Cadillac, it was an immediate success, especially with women, and sales grew dramatically over the next few years, frequently doubling annually. It also allowed Cadillac to develop a more powerful, smoother six cylinder engine and its reputation as a luxury leader. By 1914, virtually every car offered an electric starter and the Kettering electric system. This very same year he began work on another new product to bring electricity to farms and country homes - the Delco-Light plant. The Domestic Engineering Company was founded in February 1916 and the first production unit was shipped in April. It was an immediate success with first year sales exceeding 27,000 units. Kettering sold Domestic Engineering in May to United Motors Service, which was bought two years later by General Motors, and he established a new company, Dayton Research Laboratories, to focus on his research interests. United Motors and Delco-Light would dominate the burgeoning farm electric plant business with nearly 50% market share for the next 30 years.

In 1920, General Motors bought his new company and moved it to Detroit in 1925 where it became the world famous General Motors Research Laboratories - now known as the GM Technical Center. Kettering became the vice president of research and single most influential technical force in General Motors until his retirement in 1947. His unbounded curiosity, immense intellect, and perhaps most importantly his humanity allowed him to inspire others to join in a series of technical achievements which have become commonplace and accepted in a broad range of disciplines, including literally thousands of major advancements that we take for granted today.  For his achievements, Kettering was awarded 21 honorary doctorates of science, belonged to 35 scientific societies covering a range of disciplines, and participated in most of them in leadership roles. Along with his duties at General Motors, he was either director or executive at 12 major corporations or institutions. In cooperation with Alfred P. Sloan, he established the Sloan-Kettering Institute, which has become the nation’s leading cancer research facility.

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