Charles Franklin Kettering (August 29, 1876 – November 24 or November 25, 1958) was an American inventor and the holder of 140 patents[1]. He was a founder of Delco, and was head of research for General Motors for 27 years from 1920 to 1947. Among his most widely used automotive inventions were the electrical starting motor[2] and leaded gasoline[3]. In association with the DuPont Chemical Company, he was also responsible for the invention of Freon refrigerant for refrigeration and air conditioning systems. as well as for the development of Duco lacquers and enamels, the first practical colored paints for mass-produced automobiles.

Early life[]

Born in Loudonville, Ohio, USA the fourth of five children of Jacob Kettering and Martha Hunter Kettering. Poor eyesight hindered his progress as a student[1], but he earned an electrical engineering degree from Ohio State University in 1904. He is a member of the Delta Upsilon Fraternity.


Kettering was a researcher first for National Cash Register, and then for the U.S. automotive industry, founding the Dayton Engineering Laboratories company (shortened to DELCO) with Edward A. Deeds and Harold E. Talbott. Delco was eventually sold to General Motors, where it became the foundation for the General Motors Research Corporation and Delco Electronics. Kettering became vice president of General Motors Research Corporation in 1920 and held the position for 27 years.

With Henry Leland, he developed a self-starter for the Cadillac which won a Dewar Trophy as a result in 1913.[4]

He was heavily involved in the research for a lightweight diesel engine. This research was instrumental in the development of diesel locomotives, the first of which was a 600 h.p. unit that powered the "Pioneer Zephyr" for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. In an interview about this research, he was asked if the development of this type of engine presented any unusual problems. His classic response was, "Let it suffice to say that I don't recall having any trouble with the 'dipstick'".

Kettering and Deeds had a lifelong business, professional and personal relationship. In 1914, recognizing that Dayton was among the leading industrial cities in the United States due to the various highly-skilled engineers and technicians working in the city, they founded the Engineers Club of Dayton. After his death, his body lay in honor at the Engineers Club prior to interment in the mausoleum at Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio.


Kettering held 140 U.S. patents. He invented the all-electric starting, ignition, and lighting system for automobiles. Electric starters replaced crank (manual) starting of automobiles. First incorporated in the 1912 Cadillac, all-electric starting aided in the growth of the U.S. auto industry by making the automobile easy for nearly anyone to start and use. Other patents included a portable lighting system, Freon,[5] a World War I "aerial torpedo" , the Kettering Bug, a treatment for venereal disease and an incubator for premature infants. His engine-driven generator was combined with storage batteries to form a "Delco Plant", providing an electrical lighting system for farmhouses and other locations remote from an electrical power grid.

He developed the idea of Duco paint and ethyl gasoline[3]. He helped develop diesel engines and ways to harness solar energy. He was a pioneer in the application of magnetism to medical diagnostic techniques.

His inventions, especially that of the electric automobile starter, made him very wealthy. In 1945, he helped found what became the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, based on the premise that American industrial research techniques could be applied to cancer research.

On January 1, 1998, the former General Motors Institute changed its name to Kettering University to honor Kettering as a founder.[6]

Personal life[]

Kettering married Olive Williams of Ashland, Ohio, in 1905. Their only child, Eugene Williams Kettering, was born on April 20, 1908.

He built a house, "Ridgeleigh Terrace", in 1914. According to local sources, this house was the first in the United States to have electric air conditioning. Ridgeleigh Terrace was the home of his son, Eugene Kettering, until his death. Eugene's wife, Virginia Kettering, lived in the house for many years, restoring and redecorating it. In 1994, the house was seriously damaged in a fire, but Virginia Kettering, then in her 80s, rebuilt it according to the original blueprints. She continued to live there until she moved to a suite in the nearby Kettering Medical Center when in her 90s.


In 1998, GMI Engineering and Management Institute (formerly General Motors Institute), of Flint, Michigan, changed its name to Kettering University in honor of Kettering. His ideals, prowess, and belief in co-operative education continue there. Kettering is also remembered through the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, a cancer research and treatment center in New York City, and through the Kettering Health Network, which includes several hospitals and medical center campuses as well as the Kettering College of Medical Arts in Kettering, Ohio.

The city of Kettering, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton, was named after him when it was incorporated in 1955.

The former U.S. Army Air Service testing field, McCook Field, is now a Dayton park called Kettering Field.

Four U.S. public schools are named after him:

  • Charles F. Kettering Sr. High School in Waterford, Michigan
  • Charles F. Kettering Elementary School in Ypsilanti, Michigan
  • Charles F. Kettering Elementary School in Long Beach, California
  • Kettering Fairmont High School in Kettering, Ohio
  • The Department of Environmental Health at the University of Cincinnati is housed in the Kettering Lab


  • U.S. Patent 1,150,523 Engine Starting Device, Filing date: Jun 15, 1911

External links[]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Scharchburg, Richard P.. "Charles F. Kettering : Doing the right thing at the right time". Retrieved 2008-05-13. "His book of patents contains more than 300 separate applications" 
  2. Google Patents US Patent #1150523, filed June 15, 1911
  3. 3.0 3.1 Method and Means for Using Low Compression Fuels US Patent #1635216, filed Jan 3, 1924
  4. DeWar Trophy retrieved June 30, 2007
  5. Inventors accessed December 21, 2007
  6. "Our GMI Heritage". Website. Retrieved 2008-05-13. "On January 1, 1998, GMI changed its name to honor the man who not only helped found this institution, but also had a strong influence in the concept of professional cooperative education -- Charles "Boss" Kettering."