Legend has it that Charles Kettering, later known as "Boss Ket," earned his first $14 cutting a neighbor's wheat crop. With the money, he bought a telephone from a mail-order house, dismantled it to study its inner workings, and launched a tremendous career. Considered one of America's great inventors, Charles Kettering and his 140 patents had an incomparable impact on modern American life.
Born in Ohio in 1876, Kettering was twice derailed from his studies in college by his failing eyesight, but he ultimately earned an engineering degree in 1904. After graduation he joined the National Cash Register Company, where he developed the first electrically operated cash register. Kettering's work to perfect this machine, and his growing expertise in mechanical design, would alter the automotive industry forever.
At the turn of the 20th century, automobiles were not for the faint of heart. In 1900, when Theodore Roosevelt became the first president to ride in one, even the manly TR took precautions: For three years, he never traveled by car without being trailed by a horse-drawn carriage for back-up. Entirely lacking in safety features -- horns, headlights, shock absorbers, speedometers, brake pedals -- automobiles were treacherous even before they took to the road, and required significant physical strength. Drivers used iron hand cranks to start these cars, which involved perfect timing and a little luck; if the driver forgot to turn off the ignition before lifting the crank at the front of the vehicle, the engine could backfire or, worse yet, the car could roll forward -- and there were no brakes. After a man died in 1910 as a result of a blow to the face by a crank handle, Cadillac head Henry Leland resolved to replace cranks.
Charles Kettering got to work. Now at the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (DELCO), which he co-founded with Edward A. Deeds in 1909, Kettering drew on his past work with electricity (he had invented an engine-driven generator capable of supplying electricity to millions of rural farms, called the Delco), and he revisited his cash register switch. A motor had opened the register drawer with the touch of a button, and now Kettering perfected his self-starting motor with a key. In 1912 the Cadillac became the first car to feature a self-starter, and by the 1920s, nearly every new car was equipped with one. Cars became practical and safe, and sales, particularly among women, skyrocketed.
DELCO was eventually sold to General Motors, and renamed the GM Research Company, of which Kettering was named vice president in 1920. It was at the car manufacturer that Kettering would again radically improve American transportation, this time the railroads. In 1931, Ralph Budd took the reins of the Burlington Railroad, hoping to attract more business to the sagging industry. He wanted a train that was lighter, less expensive, and more fun to look at -- and ride -- than utilitarian trains of the past. The Zephyr Ralph Budd proposed needed a more modern engine to meet his demands.
Kettering would supply the component Budd needed. By 1933, working with the U.S. Navy, the Electro-Motive Company, and Winton Engines (the latter two purchased by GM, at Kettering's suggestion, in 1930), Kettering helped to create a lightweight diesel engine that would allow the Zephyr and other streamliners to dominate the rails, speedily and stylishly, for the next decade.
Over the course of his life, the scope of Kettering's inventions is impressive: a treatment for venereal disease; an incubator for premature infants; artificial fever therapy. Then there were the many transportation and technological inventions: quick-drying automotive paint; shock absorbers; safety glass; automatic transmission; the electric railway gate; the first synthetic aviation fuel; and Freon for refrigerators and air conditioners. Kettering's Dayton home, in fact, was the first in the country to be air-conditioned.
Kettering retired from General Motors Research in 1947, and after several strokes died in 1958. His legacy extended beyond his inventions: His dedication to "practical education" yielded the Flint Institute of Technology in 1919 and the General Motors Institute in 1926 (now Kettering University), and in 1945 he helped establish the New York cancer research facility, the Sloan-Kettering Institute. Kettering summed up his career beautifully when he said, "My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there."