Despite the expansion of utility-produced electricity in cities and large towns at the start of the 20th Century, large areas of America were excluded due to their lack of access to power lines. In fact, in 1910, 54 percent of the estimated 92 million Americans lived in rural areas where electricity was almost non-existent. Many farms and rural homes relied on windmills to mechanically pump their water. Within the next decade, inventor and engineer Charles Kettering would develop a standalone electric generator that would not only introduce the urban benefits of electricity to many rural Americans but improve their living conditions tremendously.
Charles Kettering, who became known in the early 20th Century as “Boss Ket” among his professional peers, was a teacher, engineer, scientist, inventor, mentor, businessman, leader, and humanitarian. The impact of his life’s work to improving the human condition, as large as it was, is not as well known today as it should be.
Born in August 29, 1876, at Loudonville, Ohio, Kettering spent much of his childhood reading despite suffering from severe eyestrain. His favorite topics pertained to production and usage of electricity. With money he earned from his first job, he purchased a telephone and immediately took it apart to understand how it worked. After graduating from The Ohio State University with an electrical engineering degree in 1904, he began his career at the National Cash Register Company, where he developed a breakthrough electric motor to eliminate the crank handle that was difficult to operate on cash registers at the time. In 1909, Kettering and business associate Edward Deeds formed the Dayton Engineering Laboratory Company which became more commonly known as Delco. Their first task was to develop an electric starter for the automobile to eliminate the laborious and dangerous hand crank. In doing so, Delco developed the basic automobile electric system that continues to be used in cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, and other internal combustion engine-based vehicles today. The system 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. First fitted as standard equipment on the 1912 Cadillac, Delco’s electric starter
became an immediate success, and the company’s sales increased dramatically over the next few years. It allowed Cadillac to develop a more powerful, smoother six-cylinder engine and sealed the auto manufacturer’s reputation as a luxury leader. By 1914, nearly every car offered an electric starter and electrical system developed by Delco.
Charles Kettering at 52 years old.
It was also in 1913 that Kettering turned his attention to the matter of bringing electricity to farms and rural homes. He produced his first electric light plant and gave it to his mother as a Christmas gift that year. In February 1916, the Domestic Engineering Company was founded to manufacture the Delco-Light plant, and the first units were shipped in April that year. The Delco-Light was an immediate success, selling more than 27,000 units in the first year. Kettering sold the Domestic Engineering Company in May 1916 to United Motors Service. The company was, in turn, bought two years later by General Motors and Kettering established a new company, Dayton Research Laboratories, to focus on his research interests. Together, United Motors and Delco-Light would dominate the burgeoning farm electric light plant business with nearly 50 percent market share for the next 30 years. (The Delco-Light plant line was discontinued in 1947, after the Rural Electric Administration and large public utilities had succeeded in bringing highline electricity to most of the United States.)
Charles Kettering's childhood home in Defiance, Ohio, where his first light plant was installed.
In 1920, General Motors bought Kettering’s new research company and moved it to Detroit, where it became the world-famous General Motors Research Laboratories (known today as the GM Technical Center). Kettering became the vice president of research and was the single most influential technical force at 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 him in a series of technical achievements which have become commonplace and accepted in a broad range of disciplines. For his achievements, Kettering was awarded twenty-one honorary doctorates of science, belonged to thirty-five scientific societies in which he served in leadership roles, and graced the cover of January 9, 1933 Time magazine. Along with his duties at General Motors, Kettering was either director or executive at 12 major corporations and institutions. In cooperation with Alfred P. Sloan, he established the Sloan-Kettering Institute which has become the nation’s leading cancer research facility.
Kettering died on November 25, 1958, in Dayton, Ohio, at the age of 82.
Charles Kettering at 60 years old.
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