Charles F. Kettering, co-founder of Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (DELCO) in Dayton, Ohio, is issued U.S. Patent No. 1,150,523 for his “engine-starting device”–the first electric ignition device for automobiles–on August 17, 1915.
In the early years of the automobile, drivers used iron hand cranks to start the internal combustion process that powered the engines on their cars. In addition to requiring great hand and arm strength, this system was not without certain risks: If the driver forgot to turn his ignition off before turning the crank, the car could backfire or roll forward, as at the time most vehicles had no brakes. Clearly a better system was needed, and in 1911 Cadillac head Henry M. Leland gave Charles Kettering the task of developing one.
Before founding DELCO with his partner Edward Deeds in 1909, Kettering had worked at the National Cash Register Company, where he helped develop the first electric cash register. He drew on this experience when approaching his work with automobiles. Just as the touch of a button had started a motor that opened the drawer of the cash register, Kettering would eventually use a key to turn on his self-starting motor. The self-starter was introduced in the 1912 Cadillac, patented by Kettering in 1915, and by the 1920s would come standard on nearly every new automobile. By making cars easier and safer to operate, especially for women, the self-starting engine caused a huge jump in sales, and helped foster a fast-growing automobile culture in America.
United Motors Corporation (later General Motors) bought DELCO in 1916, and Kettering worked as vice president and director of research at GM from 1920 to 1947. Other important auto-related innovations developed during Kettering’s tenure were quick-drying automotive paint, spark plugs, leaded gasoline, shock absorbers, the automatic transmission, four-wheel brakes, the diesel engine and safety glass. He helped develop the refrigerant Freon, used in refrigerators and air conditioners, and the Kettering home in Dayton was the first in the country to be air-conditioned. In the realm of medicine, Kettering created a treatment for venereal disease and an incubator for premature infants, and in 1945 he and longtime General Motors head Alfred P. Sloan established the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York City. Kettering died in 1958.