Charles F. Kettering

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Reproduction of a photograph depicting Charles F. Kettering with a Buick automobile, Dayton, Ohio, 1913. Kettering is credited with inventing the electric ignition and self-starter for the automobile. He was one of the founders of the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, which became the Delco Products Division of General Motors.

Charles Franklin Kettering was born on a farm near Loudonville, Ohio, on August 29, 1876. He came from a modest background but still managed to obtain a college education, graduating from The Ohio State University in 1904 with a degree in engineering. Kettering then moved to Dayton, where he found a job at the National Cash Register Company. There, he helped to develop the first electric cash register. Kettering did not stay long at National Cash Register.

In 1909, he founded the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, known as Delco, with his associate Edward Deeds. Kettering was involved in a number of research projects at Delco, inventing a portable electric generator and many important automobile innovations.

Kettering is credited with inventing the first electric ignition system for automobiles. This development allowed drivers to start their car without going to the front of the car and turning a hand crank to start the engine. Kettering also invented electric lights for automobiles that would allow drivers to drive safely at night.

Because of Kettering’s successful inventions, General Motors purchased Delco in 1916. Kettering was hired as the head of General Motors’ new research division and became a vice president of the company in 1920. Kettering continued to develop new technology for automobiles throughout his life, including spark plugs, leaded gasoline, automatic transmission, and four-wheel brakes. Under his leadership, General Motors also developed diesel engines, safety glass, and the refrigerant Freon. Kettering's home was the first house in the United States to have electric air conditioning, through the use of Freon. Kettering retired from General Motors in 1947.

Kettering also was interested in philanthropic endeavors. In 1945, he and General Motors president Alfred Sloan established the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, located in New York City. Kettering received numerous honors for his contributions to technological research. He was awarded dozens of honorary doctorates and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Kettering died on November 25, 1958.

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