Kettering's starter motor turns 100

Feb 15, 2011 at 11:28 am
Few in Detroit are discussing this, but we’re about to arrive at one of the crucial anniversaries in the history of the automobile. On Feb. 17, 2011, it will be exactly 100 years since the first electric starter motor was installed in a car. Before that, cars were started by hand, using a crank that sometimes could kick back and break your arm. Think of the kind of enthusiast willing to start an engine with a crude hand-crank and you have the typical car owner of the pre-1911 era: Strong enough to start an engine by hand, determined enough to ride rutted mud roads — if only to be pulled out by literal horsepower. For an equivalent today, consider the old-school biker who kick-starts his hog a century later than necessary.

Through the magic of science, starting a car suddenly became a snap, making the automobile accessible to the general public. Now a driver could be a person of moderate strength, man and woman alike, altering the face of the motoring public completely. No longer did you need to be a mechanic or even to have muscles. Much in the way programs such as Windows once made computers accessible to people who didn’t know how to write in DOS, COBOL or FORTRAN, the electric starter introduced the public of the 1910s to automatic access to the non-virtual highway. And, much as government gave us the Internet, in the ’10s the United States embarked on a massive road-building program, helping pull gas buggies out of the manure-mud roads and put them on concrete. Within 10 years, flivvers would flood the streets, and horses would be reserved for milkmen and rag-pickers.

The first car with a starter motor was a 1912 Cadillac, and the man behind the starter was Ohio-born Charles Franklin Kettering, whose name is better known today for the foundations and research centers that bear it. “Boss Ket” racked up 140 patents over his life, many of them in Detroit. Once chief chemist at the National Cash Register Company, he developed the electric cash register and the drawer-actuated register. He later founded the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (nowadays shortened to Delco), which was eventually subsumed into General Motors. For a generation, Kettering was in charge of research at GM, from 1920 to 1947.

Kettering was by all accounts an interesting character, a “colorful and articulate speaker, a man with something to say and the ability to express himself in crisp language with salty good humor.” In science, he ran against the academic grain; a former farm hand and telephone lineman, he poked fun at book-learning and degrees. As related in Malcolm W. Bingay’s book, Detroit Is My Own Home Town, after studying engineering at Ohio State University, he took his diploma home and burned it in the fireplace, saying, “Now I will learn something about engineering.” He held a lifelong suspicion that diplomas hindered open-mindedness, and said, “The fellow who believes the last textbook is stuck with it.” In fact, he went so far as to meet the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and (in Bingay’s words) gibe him, “If you have any good third-year men at M.I.T., send them to me. Their minds are still open. But I do not like them so well when they have been graduated. Once they get a sheepskin, it’s sometimes a job prying their minds open again.”

Unfortunately, many of Kettering’s other innovations aren’t remembered as fondly today — such as the ozone shield-killing “miracle compound” Freon or leaded gasoline. But thanks to his electric car starter — as well as electrical generators and automotive ignition and lighting systems — old “Boss Ket” well deserves a posthumous round of applause this week.