January 13, 1920 – Inventor and engineer Charles Kettering becomes a VP at General Motors

charles kettering
Charles Kettering with his first electric self starter.

In the early 20th century, the automotive industry was rapidly evolving, and one man stood at the forefront, shaping its destiny with innovation and foresight. Charles F. Kettering, a name synonymous with automotive breakthroughs, left an indelible mark on the industry and beyond.

Our story begins in the bustling city of Dayton, Ohio, in 1876, where Charles Franklin Kettering was born. His early years hinted at an innate curiosity and a penchant for tinkering with machines. One anecdote that encapsulates the essence of Kettering’s inventive spirit involves a young Charles fixing a malfunctioning steam engine on a local farm. It was a foreshadowing of the engineering genius that would later revolutionize the automotive landscape.

Kettering’s career took a significant turn when he joined the National Cash Register Company (NCR), where he became deeply involved in electrical engineering. His innovative mind soon caught the attention of automotive magnate Billy Durant, who, in 1909, brought Kettering into the fold of General Motors.

The electric self-starter

One of Kettering’s most enduring contributions to the automotive world was the development of the electric self-starter. In the early days of automobiles, starting a car required a cumbersome hand crank, a task often challenging and dangerous. Kettering’s ingenious solution, introduced on 1912 Cadillacs, transformed the driving experience, making cars more accessible and safer for a broader audience.

His revolutionary self-starter not only simplified the process of starting an automobile but also played a crucial role in the widespread adoption of internal combustion engine vehicles. This innovation marked a turning point in automotive history, opening the door to a new era of convenience and accessibility.

The Must Have Portable Tire Inflator

The first aerial missiles

However, Kettering’s brilliance extended beyond the automotive realm. In the midst of World War I, he directed his ingenuity toward military technology, developing the first aerial missile, known as the Kettering Bug. This early cruise missile showcased his versatility as an inventor and his commitment to technological advancements that transcended industry boundaries.

Model of Kettering’s first aerial torpedo, the Kettering Bug. By Greg Hume – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

On January 13, 1920, Kettering assumed the role of vice-president of General Motors Research Corporation, a position he held for an astonishing 27 years. Under his guidance, the research division became a hotbed of innovation, contributing to numerous advancements in automotive engineering, including the following.

Achievements under Charles Kettering

Charles Kettering
Charles Kettering
  1. Ethyl Gasoline and the Elimination of Engine Knock: One of Kettering’s early achievements at GM was the development of ethyl gasoline. Engine knock, caused by the combustion of low-octane fuels, was a persistent issue. Kettering’s research led to the introduction of ethyl gasoline, which contained tetraethyl lead. This combo significantly reduced engine knock, allowing for the use of higher compression ratios and enhancing overall engine performance.
  2. High-Compression Engine: Kettering was a driving force behind the development of high-compression engines. By increasing the compression ratio, engines could achieve greater efficiency and power. This innovation, implemented in the mid-1920s, became a standard feature in automobiles, influencing the design of engines for decades to come.
  3. Freon for Air Conditioning: In association with DuPont, Kettering played a crucial role in the development and application of Freon as a refrigerant. This breakthrough paved the way for the widespread adoption of air conditioning systems in automobiles, transforming the driving experience by providing comfort in various climates.
  4. Diesel-Electric Locomotives: While not directly related to automobiles, Kettering’s influence extended to other modes of transportation. He spearheaded the development of diesel-electric locomotives, revolutionizing the railroad industry by providing a more efficient and reliable alternative to traditional steam locomotives.
  5. Research and Innovation Culture: Under Kettering’s leadership, General Motors Research Corporation became a powerhouse of innovation. He fostered a culture of research and development, encouraging engineers and scientists to explore new ideas. This commitment to innovation led to numerous advancements in materials, aerodynamics, and safety technologies.
  6. Hydra-Matic Transmission: Kettering was instrumental in the development of GM’s Hyda-Matic transmission, an automatic transmission system introduced in the late 1930s, based on work by Oscar Banker. This innovation made driving more accessible and comfortable by eliminating the need for manual shifting, particularly in stop-and-go traffic.

Charles Kettering’s impact on the automotive industry at General Motors extended far beyond individual inventions. His visionary leadership and commitment to research laid the foundation for a culture of innovation that continues to drive progress in the automotive world. Kettering’s legacy is not only in the specific technologies he pioneered but also in the enduring spirit of innovation he instilled within the automotive giant he served for nearly three decades.

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