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Although Charles Kettering made a giant impact in the business world when he invented the electric cash register while working for the National Cash Register Company in Dayton, he would gain considerably more fame for his inventions that immensely improved the public's ease of owning an automobile.
Anyone that has a driver's license has probably used a key to start their car. For those that don't know what happens when they turn that key, in its most basic concept, allows a jolt of electricity to run from the battery to a motor that actually turns or cranks the engine. Sparks are then ignited in the piston chambers that cause a mixture of air and vaporized gasoline to explode. Once all of the cylinders start revolving, the starter motor quickly disengages from the engine and it continues on its own. Sure, everyone knows that you say. But if you ever see any of those old movies where the guy has to stand in front of the car and turn a crank to get the engine started can appreciate what it was like before the self-starter was invented. That's what Charles Franklin Kettering invented: the self-starting engine. And that was just the beginning for the young Mr. Kettering.
Charles Kettering was born at just the right time in America's timeline. That event happened in the family's farmhouse 3 miles north of Loudonville on August 29, 1876. He was the 4th of 5 children born to the Kettering farmstead. The Kettering household was not wealthy in terms of having lots of money. Years later after creating a vast fortune making him the richest engineer in the world, Charles Kettering returned to Loudonville in 1948 to celebrate his 72nd birthday and to pay homage to his hometown. During those celebrations Charles recalled his childhood in Loudonville. "Now, I didn't know at that time that I was an underprivileged person because I had to drive the cows through the frosty grass and stand in a nice warm spot where a cow had lain to warm my feet. I thought that was wonderful. I walked three miles to the high school and I thought that was wonderful too. I thought of all that as an opportunity and I thought the only thing involved in opportunity was whether I knew how to think with my head and to do with my hands."
Growing up on his families farm it was expected that he work on the farm. But besides doing his family chores, Charles also worked on neighboring farms as a hired hand. It is said that one of his first paying jobs was cutting a wheat field with a scythe for $14. With that money he ordered a telephone through a mail-order catalog. Once his package arrived, he promptly dismantled the device to see how it worked. There were a lot of stories later told about young Charles about how inventive he was in his youth, but most of those were probably embellishments of memories. Charlie as his parents called him, was tall for his age. He was extremely nearsighted, which caused him to withdraw from most social gatherings and instead he found solace in books. In school he later found a strong aptitude for mathematics and later physics. Growing up on a farm, Charlie learned much about the mechanical workings of farm machinery: what made it work, how to repair it when it broke. Perhaps this more than anything was the driving force behind Charlie's later success.
After graduating from high school, Charles taught grade school to save enough for tuition at the College of Wooster which he was able to do at the age of 20. Going to college wasn't without its challenges. Kettering's eyesight was notoriously poor and it forced him to drop out and return to school teaching.
A few years later, Kettering decided to try engineering at The Ohio State University in Columbus. Again his poor eyesight forced him to drop out. Frustrated at his failure to complete his education in a timely manner, young Kettering got a job through an acquaintance digging holes for a telephone company in Ashland. It was extremely hard work, but it didn't require any strain on his eyes. After several years of this extremely laborious work, but he soon became the crew's foreman and earned him the nickname "Boss Ket" which followed him throughout his life. This hard work convinced Charles that it would be better if he could use his mind rather than his muscles if he ever wanted to be successful.
He again decided to try his hand at higher education at Ohio State University. This time after speaking with the Dean at the College of Engineering, Kettering got a waiver that waived the requirement that he needed to pass mechanical drafting as part of his degree. But, he was also required to convince one of his roommates that they had to read each lesson to him out loud before his next class. Despite these severe restrictions, Kettering graduated with an Electrical Engineering degree in 1904 at the age of 28. After graduation Kettering would create an industry from inventions. His entire life would be driven by trying to make things work better.
Thanks to a strong recommendation from his physics professor at Ohio State University,, Charles Kettering got his first engineering job with the National Cash Register Company (NCR) in Dayton making $50 a week. Here using his practical experience and his educational training, Kettering greatly improved NCRs main product: the cash register. Up to this point in time, cash registers, which were used throughout the world wherever customers made a purchase. Sales clerks rang up each sale by entering the transaction amount using the keys on the cash register, then pulling a large handle down that caused the figures to be printed on a sales receipt, made a record of the transaction on an inner tape, displayed the transaction amount in a window, and opened the cash drawer so the clerk could tender the amount and make change. All of this mechanical machinations required some effort on the clerk, who was often a young women. What Charles Kettering did, was electrify that transaction, meaning all the clerk had to do now was enter the amount, and push a button. This revolutionized the retail industry.
Charles had only been at NCR for a few years, but it was long enough to prove himself to his boss, Edward Deeds. It was Deeds suggestion that that Kettering and him and a few others, might be able to come up with some valuable improvements to the new automobiles being made across the country. The group met at Deeds home in his barn where they began tinkering around. The first task they set out to improve was the "damned" starting procedures. In a relatively quick time frame the group led by Charles Kettering, invented a self-starting motor that could easily be adapted to run on almost any automobile's engine. Cadillac was the first automobile manufacturing facility to buy the self-starter and with that the company was off and running.
Both Kettering and Deeds resigned from NCR and formed the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company which became known nationwide as just DELCO. In time DELCO would be purchased by General Motors and Mr. Kettering would become one of the corporations major vice-presidents.
Kettering would continue amassing patents (he held 186 U.S. Patents in his own name). Charles Kettering retired from General Motors, but continued using the fortune he had amassed over his long career. In 1945 and the longtime General Motors head established the Sloan-Kettering Institute for cancer research.
Charles Kettering died in late 1958 from a stroke.
The self starting engine transformed the infant automobile industry. Prior to this one invention, automobile owners risked life and limb whenever they attempted to hand crank their engines. Sometimes the engine would back-fire, suddenly jerking the crank backwards causing the user to serious injury to their arms. Since these cranks were in front of motorcar, after starting they might suddenly lurch forward and run over the crankee. With the addition of the self-starting automobile motor, drivers could sit inside the safety of their car and start up their engines. No longer did drivers risk everything for a joy-ride and women could now also start an automobile without anyone's help.