#125 Charles Kettering inventor, engineer, founder

Summary Notes


In this insightful exploration of Charles F. Kettering's life and philosophy, the host delves into the story of an unconventional innovator whose contributions to technology and business were profound. Kettering, a farmer, schoolteacher, and inventor, held 186 patents and founded Delco, later becoming the head of research at General Motors. His inventions, including the electrical starter and leaded gasoline, revolutionized the automotive industry. Kettering's approach as a "professional amateur" emphasized the importance of practical knowledge, the willingness to embrace failure as a stepping stone to success, and the necessity of independent thought and action. His belief in the boundless potential of human progress and the power of imagination underpinned his remarkable achievements, inspiring others to pursue greater accomplishments. Kettering's story, as told through Alfred Sloan's words and Thomas Boyd's biography, underscores the impact of unusual men like him on the advancement of society.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Charles F. Kettering's Story

  • Alfred Sloan views the story of Charles F. Kettering as a lesson to be learned and significant in its own right.
  • Progress is attributed to unusual men with talent, vision, imagination, ambition, willingness to work, courage to act independently, and conviction.
  • Unusual efforts by individuals contribute greatly to the advancement of society.
  • Charles F. Kettering is presented as a multifaceted individual with diverse roles and contributions.

"Progress has come about when an unusual man broke loose and independently, on his own, started something different."

This quote highlights the importance of individual initiative and the role of unique individuals in driving progress and innovation.

Professional Amateur: The Biography of Charles F. Kettering

  • The original title of Kettering's biography reflects his approach to work as a "professional amateur."
  • Thomas Boyd authored the biography, which provides insight into Kettering's mindset and methods.
  • The book's title and content suggest that Kettering embraced challenges with a professional attitude while exploring new territories like an amateur.

"I present to you the reader, Charles F. Kettering. Farmer, schoolteacher, mechanic, inventor, engineer, scientist, social philosopher, and master salesman."

This quote encapsulates the varied roles and accomplishments of Charles F. Kettering, painting a picture of his diverse talents and contributions.

Charles F. Kettering's Accomplishments

  • Kettering held 186 patents and was a founder of Delco and a research leader at General Motors.
  • His innovations include the electrical starter, leaded gasoline, Freon, aerial missiles, and two-stroke diesel engines.
  • Kettering's life story is about transformation from a poor farm boy to a historical figure through his approach to work and mindset.

"He was an American inventor, engineer, businessman and holder of 186 patents."

This quote provides a brief overview of Kettering's professional identity and his significant contributions to various industries.

Professional Amateur Mindset

  • Kettering believed in approaching work as a professional amateur due to the novelty and challenges involved.
  • He saw progress as inherently linked to encountering and overcoming trouble.
  • Kettering's philosophy emphasized continuous learning and embracing difficulties as part of the path to innovation.

"We are simply professional amateurs. We are amateurs because we are doing things for the first time. We are professional because we know we are going to have a lot of trouble."

Kettering's quote reflects his mindset that innovation involves venturing into the unknown with a professional attitude towards the inevitable challenges.

Pure Research Laboratory Philosophy

  • Kettering advocated for pure research within commercial organizations to drive innovation.
  • He believed that there was still much to learn about automobiles and other technologies.
  • Kettering emphasized the importance of understanding fundamental principles rather than just surface knowledge.

"We keep ourselves harnessed to the idea that we still have Everything to learn about automobiles, and that is just a simple truth."

This quote from Kettering underscores his commitment to continuous learning and his belief that there is always more to discover, even in well-established fields.

Kettering's Philosophy on the Future and Knowledge

  • Kettering objected to negativity about the future and believed in shaping it through effort.
  • He agreed with Thomas Edison's sentiment that humanity knows very little about anything.
  • Kettering's optimism about the future was rooted in the belief that much of knowledge remained undiscovered.

"What I believe is that by proper effort, we can make the future almost anything we want to make it in reality."

Kettering's quote expresses his forward-looking attitude and confidence in humanity's ability to shape the future through diligent effort.

Kettering's Early Life and Education

  • Kettering's background as a poor farm boy from Ohio shaped his perspective on opportunity and learning.
  • He valued practical knowledge and understanding over rote memorization and detached learning.
  • Kettering's approach to education was influenced by his own experiences and the practical lessons he learned from others.

"I am enthusiastic about being an American because I came from the hills in Ohio. I was a hillbilly."

This quote reveals Kettering's humble beginnings and his appreciation for the opportunities that his upbringing provided, shaping his outlook on life and learning.

Kettering's Teaching Philosophy and Practice

  • Kettering did not conform to conventional teaching methods, preferring to connect learning to practical, real-world contexts.
  • He believed that schoolbooks should be engaging and relevant, reflecting his desire for education to be meaningful and applicable.
  • Kettering's teaching style was innovative and focused on understanding rather than mere knowledge acquisition.

"Instead of teaching spelling solely by having the Class memorize the spellings of a group of words in the spelling book, he would vary the assignment by having his pupils read something in the newspaper and tell them that they would be expected to know how to spell the words contained in it."

This quote illustrates Kettering's practical approach to teaching, emphasizing the application of learning to everyday situations rather than abstract memorization.

Kettering's Path to Engineering

  • Kettering's interest in engineering was sparked by his familiarity with blacksmithing and shop practice.
  • His journey to becoming an engineer was unconventional, starting college at 22 and facing health challenges.
  • Kettering's resourcefulness and curiosity were evident early on, as he sought out practical knowledge and experiences.

"If the engineering course had blacksmithing in it, he could understand that."

This quote signifies Kettering's connection of his rural background to the field of engineering, bridging the gap between his practical skills and academic pursuits.

Learning from Hiram Sweet

  • Kettering, at age 20, learned significantly from Hiram Sweet, a wagon maker and engineer.
  • Sweet was an exceptional inventor in a small town, having created a self-computing cash register and an astronomical clock.
  • Kettering was inspired by Sweet's dedication to self-education and innovation outside of his daily work.
  • Sweet's approach to learning had a profound impact on Kettering, more so than his formal education.

"The man from whom he learned most was Hiram sweet, the wagon maker. But sweet was more than a wagon maker. He was, as Kettering said long afterward, an engineer of such keen ability as to be remarkable." "I work in the wagon shop 10 hours a day, from 630 in the morning until 530 in the afternoon. And when I have no wagon work to do, I work on Sweet's head."

The first quote highlights Sweet's influence on Kettering as an engineer and inventor. The second quote demonstrates Sweet's commitment to personal growth and innovation, which deeply influenced Kettering's own approach to learning and problem-solving.

Kettering's College Experience and Financial Struggles

  • Kettering enrolled at Ohio State University at age 22, juggling work and studies due to financial constraints.
  • He valued practical learning and experiences over textbook knowledge.
  • Kettering's perspective on education was shaped by his interactions and relationships, not just academic content.

"He had to go to college, but he had to work. At the same time. He had no money." "Ket got what he later said was one of the most important lessons he learned in college."

The first quote underscores Kettering's financial challenges and his need to work while pursuing higher education. The second quote reflects Kettering's belief that significant life lessons can come from experiences outside of academic learning, such as his interaction with Joseph Jefferson.

The Power of Imagination and Overcoming Disability

  • Kettering faced challenges with his eyesight, which led to a unique learning process.
  • He developed his imagination by listening to classmates read aloud, enhancing his mental visualization skills.
  • Kettering viewed his disability not as a setback but as an opportunity to strengthen his cognitive abilities.

"Also, because he could read less and less, he learned more and more to picture things in his mind." "You can know three times as much as you know, without learning any more."

These quotes highlight Kettering's ability to adapt to his visual impairment by focusing on auditory learning and mental imagery. His approach to learning was innovative and allowed him to absorb information in a unique way, turning a potential disadvantage into an advantage.

Kettering's Optimism and Persistence

  • Kettering's optimism and refusal to accept defeat were key traits in his success.
  • He believed in learning from failures and using them as stepping stones towards improvement.
  • Kettering's philosophy was to start projects even without complete knowledge, learning through the process of doing.

"The obstacle of not knowing how never kept him from undertaking anything he thought needed to be done." "If an experiment fails, then you ought to be careful to find out why it failed, because that failure may not have had anything to do with the reasonableness of the principle."

The first quote exemplifies Kettering's proactive attitude towards challenges, not allowing a lack of knowledge to prevent him from starting projects. The second quote encourages a thoughtful analysis of failures to understand the underlying reasons and to use those insights for future success.

Kettering's Encounters with Prominent Figures and Career Steps

  • Kettering's life intersected with notable individuals such as Thomas Watson and the Wright brothers.
  • His work experiences, including laying telephone lines, contributed to his practical knowledge of engineering.
  • Kettering's job at the National Cash Register Company (NCR) was a pivotal point in his career, where he learned valuable lessons in sales and product development.

"Before the end of Kett's senior year, a letter came to university asking for a young man with an inventive turn of mind and a good knowledge of electricity to join the invention staff of the national cash register Company at Dayton, Ohio." "I didn't hang much around with the other inventors or the executives. I lived with the sales gang. They had some real notion of what people wanted."

The first quote describes how Kettering was identified as a promising candidate for a position at NCR, which became a significant step in his career. The second quote reveals Kettering's strategy of immersing himself with salespeople to better understand consumer desires, which informed his approach to invention and product development.

Charles F. Kettering's Early Struggles and Support from His Wife

  • Kettering worked nights and weekends to solve ignition system problems, using his unique set of skills.
  • He funded his work using savings and operated out of a friend's barn.
  • Kettering and his wife invested their savings to buy a lathe and a milling machine for their experimental work.
  • Mrs. Kettering supported her husband by bringing coffee and snacks while they worked late in the barn.
  • Kettering valued his wife's support greatly and later reflected on their life together with fondness.

"They took out savings of $1,500, nearly the total amount they had. With that money, Ket purchased a lathe and a milling machine that added to the meager equipment in their little shop."

This quote highlights the financial sacrifice and commitment Kettering and his wife made to pursue his inventive work.

Henry Leland's Influence and Kettering's Business Development

  • Henry Leland awarded Kettering a contract to produce 8,000 ignitions, recognizing his talent.
  • Leland was a significant figure in the automobile industry, influencing many early pioneers.
  • Kettering formed a company and partnered with Edward A. Deeds, who handled the business aspects, while Kettering focused on engineering.
  • Their company, initially intended to be just originators of new products, had to become manufacturers to fulfill the contract.

"Henry Leland was extremely influential. Not only was he an early automobile pioneer himself, but he's extremely influential on almost all of the other early automobile pioneers."

This quote emphasizes Leland's pivotal role in the automotive industry and his impact on Kettering's career.

Delco's Rapid Growth and Financing

  • Kettering's company, Delco, grew rapidly after successfully creating the electrical starter.
  • Delco's growth attracted the attention of Billy Durant, leading to its acquisition by General Motors.
  • Kettering and Deeds had to invest heavily, mortgage their assets, and raise funds in various ways to finance Delco's growth.
  • Kettering believed in the importance of breaking rules for human development and was dismissive of traditional methods when they impeded innovation.

"All human development, no matter what form it takes, must be outside the rules. Otherwise, we would never have anything new."

This quote encapsulates Kettering's philosophy that innovation requires breaking away from established norms.

Kettering's Inventions and Business Philosophy

  • Kettering is best known for inventing the electrical starter, inspired by an accident that led to a friend's death.
  • He believed in a "double profit system," where both the manufacturer and customer see significant benefits.
  • Kettering's approach to gauging project progress was to see if it could continue without his direct involvement.
  • He valued partnerships with good businessmen to handle the commercial aspects of his ventures.

"The way to tell whether a new development is over the hump, he once remarked, is to try taking your hands off of it. And if it runs back at you, it has not been pushed far enough."

This quote reflects Kettering's method for assessing the maturity of a project or invention.

Kettering's Relationship with Flight and Perspective on Progress

  • Kettering developed a love for flying, learning from the Wright brothers in Dayton.
  • His flying experiences led to insights into the potential of the aircraft industry and the importance of perspective.
  • Kettering believed that flying could humble individuals by showing them the relative insignificance of their endeavors from a higher altitude.

"Everyone ought to take a ride in an airplane. If an airplane passenger has any personal conceit, such an experience will remove it before he again reaches the ground."

This quote illustrates how Kettering thought flying could provide a humbling and perspective-changing experience.

Personal Research Laboratory and the Importance of Firsthand Experience

  • Kettering set up a personal research lab to focus on pioneering research without the distractions of commercial business.
  • He was involved in developing innovations for various industries, including aviation, diesel engines, and farm equipment.
  • Kettering emphasized the value of trial and error over theory and disliked the mediocrity he associated with committees.
  • He believed in the necessity of firsthand experience for anyone engaged in research to maintain a clear understanding of their work.

"It takes personal practice to drive delusions out of a fellow's mind, he said."

This quote underscores Kettering's belief in the importance of direct involvement and experience in research and development.

Importance of Unconventional Thinking

  • Charles F. Kettering (referred to as Ket) believed in veering off the well-worn path to discover new things.
  • He applied this principle even to his travels, finding faster routes by not strictly adhering to the main highway, Route 25.
  • Kettering used his travel experiences as a metaphor for innovation, equating invention with getting off Route 25.
  • His approach was to encourage young people to get off the beaten track to be successful in developing new things.

"Invention, he would say, is nothing more than getting off route 25."

This quote encapsulates Kettering's philosophy that true innovation requires stepping away from conventional methods and paths.

The Challenge of Selling New Ideas

  • Kettering was a master salesman, recognizing that selling new ideas was the hardest job.
  • He faced difficulty in convincing practical engineers and executives to adopt research results.
  • Kettering humorously suggested that resistant individuals should be paid to stay away from the plant to prevent hindrance to innovation.

"New ideas are the hardest things in the world to merchandise."

This quote highlights the inherent difficulty in convincing others of the value of new, unproven ideas.

Kettering's Interaction with Henry Ford

  • Kettering had self-confidence, evident in his interactions with Henry Ford.
  • He believed in the inevitability of progress and challenged Ford's reluctance to adopt the self-starter in cars.
  • Kettering's approach to guidance was to suggest rather than direct, fostering independent thought and initiative.

"Progress is going to march, and it'll march right past you."

Kettering's statement to Ford reflects his conviction that progress is unstoppable and that resisting it would lead to being left behind.

Kettering's Management Philosophy

  • Kettering valued the intangibles over tangibles in his contributions to General Motors (GM).
  • Alfred Sloan recognized Kettering's tangible inventions and improvements but emphasized the greater importance of his intangible contributions.
  • Kettering inspired the organization to focus on technical excellence and technological progress.

"His courage, his tenacity, his belief in the soundness of his deductions and his work have been essential."

This quote from Sloan underlines Kettering's intangible qualities that were crucial to overcoming resistance to change and achieving success at GM.

The "Shirt-Losing Zone" and Early Release of Products

  • Kettering compared the growth of ideas to plants, emphasizing the delicate nature of early stages.
  • He acknowledged that new developments often face setbacks after being marketed, which he called the "shirt-losing zone."
  • Kettering advocated for releasing products as soon as they offer utility, as it pressures improvement and benefits consumers sooner.

"The price of progress is trouble."

Kettering's quote signifies that difficulties are an inherent part of innovation and progress.

Kettering's Views on Overconfidence and Economic Planning

  • Kettering's experiences with Sir Josiah Stamp, an economist, highlighted the dangers of overconfidence and resistance to new inventions.
  • Stamp's incorrect prediction about Germany's ability to wage a long war exemplified the fallacy of relying solely on economic indices.
  • Kettering believed that industries cannot be planned because their emergence is often unpredictable.

"You can't plan industries because you can't tell whether something is going to be an industry or not when you see it."

This quote reflects Kettering's belief that the unpredictable nature of innovation makes it impossible to plan industries in advance.

Encouraging Originality in Research

  • Kettering opposed the idea of centralizing research efforts, fearing it would stifle originality.
  • He was not concerned about duplication of effort in research, seeing value in the differences between groups' approaches.
  • He encouraged continuous change and progress, criticizing those who seek comfort and rest.

"It is not what two groups do alike that matters. It's what they do different that is liable to count."

This quote underlines Kettering's belief that diversity in research approaches can lead to significant breakthroughs.

Education and the Art of Failing

  • Kettering criticized modern education for discouraging failure and stifling the potential for invention.
  • He believed that failure is a critical part of the inventive process and should be intelligently analyzed for growth.
  • Kettering argued that a person's ability to fail and learn from it is more important than formal education in becoming an inventor.

"You must learn how to fail intelligently, for failing is one of the greatest arts in the world."

This quote captures Kettering's perspective that intelligent failure is an essential skill for success in invention and progress.

Kettering's Personal Philosophy and Legacy

  • Kettering emphasized the importance of facing and overcoming difficulties.
  • He believed that struggle and determination were essential for personal growth and success.
  • Kettering's philosophy was to embrace the challenges of being a pioneer rather than following the established path.

"I can conceive of nothing more foolish than to say, the world is finished. We are not at the end of our progress, but at the very beginning."

This inspiring quote from Kettering encourages a forward-looking mindset and an embrace of continuous discovery and innovation.

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