Our Own Hall of Fame
CHARLES F. KETTERING
‘THE WORLD IS NOT FINISHED’
Kettering Just Wanted to Know
DAYTON DAILY NEWS FEBRUARY 15, 1961
BY MARY ELLEN LYNCH
Daily News Staff Writer
Eleventh of a Series
In his lifetime, Charles F. Kettering became one of America’s wealthiest, most honored men, but nothing ever meant as much to him as “tinkering instinct, goose grease and know-how.”
Those were the ingredients that helped give the world things like the automobile self-starter, the electric cash register, antiknock and ethyl gasoline, rural electrification, baby incubators, aerial torpedoes, diesel locomotives, air conditioning, pilotless aircraft—things that changed a way of life.
When the boy his family called “Chas” was still digging potatoes on the farm near Loudonville he was using a spade, a fork and a shovel to see which was most efficient
HE WANTED to know. Just as—when he died in 1958 at the age of 82—he wanted to know what makes grass green, what causes cancer, how man could harness the sun’s energy. He won’t know, but the world may. Foundations he created are still looking for the answers.
By the time Charlie Kettering was 17 he had badly damaged his already weak eyes, but he had the reputation of having read more books than any boy in Loudonville.
At 19 he was teaching 30 pupils in a one-room school and two years later he was studying engineering at Ohio State university.
Twice he had to drop out because of his eyes, twice he went to work digging post holes for the Star Telephone Co. He dug deep holes, thought deep thoughts, became foreman of a line gang and got his nickname “Boss Ket.”
It took Kettering six years to get through Ohio State and the day he was graduated he threw his diploma in a wastebasket because: “I don’t want to think of my education as finished.”
AT 28—it seemed a little late to be starting out—he came to Dayton and went to work at the National Cash Register Co. He got an impossible assignment—to develop an electric cash register.
They said it couldn’t be done because the motor would have to be almost as big as the register. But Kettering did it and his basic design was essentially the same as today’s
In 1905 Charles Kettering married Olive Williams, an Ashland girl he had met by accident while “test talking” on a telephone line.
She was the girl who, four years later, carried the black coffee back to the barn on Central Ave., where Kettering (in partnership with Col. E. A. Deeds) had founded what was to become Delco.
Those were the days of the “Barn Gang,” a dozen men with greasy hands who never knew what time it was, only if it was light or dark.
TIRELESSLY, they tinkered and tried out while an old gramophone played “When You and I Were Young Maggie” over and over. Nobody gave orders. “The only rank we had,” Kettering said later, “was that one of us was ranker than the other.”
Out of the barn came the first practical ignition system for automobiles. In 1910 in Detroit a man was killed cranking a car. A year later the first self-starter, perfected by the barn gang, appeared on a production model Cadillac.
Recognition, fame, fortune came to Kettering. In 1920 General Motors absorbed his Dayton holdings and the rest of his career was inseparably linked to GM.
He retired as vice president in charge of research in 1947 but stayed on as a consultant until his death, an inventive genius who wouldn’t stop because “there’s too much yet to be done.”
At his death he was co-holder of more than 140 patents, possessor of honorary doctorates from upwards of 30 universities.
A director and guiding light of many million-dollar enterprises, the owl-eyed wizard was still working with a monkey wrench in a lab converted from a bowling alley in the basement of his Ridgeleigh terrace mansion.
DURING HIS CAREER, the tall, slightly stooped Kettering made an average of five speeches a month, never used notes. His basic message: “The world is not finished and put up in a box. You can’t walk outside without stumbling over opportunities.”
He felt that failure was permissible—as long as it was only temporary. He called failures “steps to the cathedral of success.”
In 1952 the residents of Van Buren Twp. voted to change the name of their community to Kettering as a living memorial to “Boss Ket.” It pleased him, because the new Kettering was a place in which to live and grow.
But he scorned monuments as such. At Antioch college, the science building given by him bears this direct quote from its donor: “This is a place to work in; not a monument to anybody.”
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