Charles Kettering and the Electrical Ignition System – Today’s Special

Early Years

Charles was born in Loudonville, Ohio, in 1876. He was the fourth of five children born to Jacob Kettering and Martha Hunter Kettering. Growing up he could not see well in school, which gave him headaches. After graduation, he became a teacher. He led scientific demonstrations for students on electricity, heat, magnetism and gravity.

Kettering also took classes at The College of Wooster, and then transferred to The Ohio State University. He still had eye problems, though, which forced him to withdraw. He then worked as foreman of a telephone line crew. He learned he could apply his electrical engineering skills on the job. He also met his future wife, Olive Williams. His eye problems got better and was able to go back to school, graduating from OSU in 1904 with an electrical engineering degree.

Inventions Begin

Kettering began working at a research laboratory at National Cash Register.

He invented an easy credit approval system, a precursor to today’s credit cards, and the electric cash register, which made ringing up sales physically much easier for sales clerks all over the country.  During his five years at NCR, from 1904 to 1909, Kettering earned 23 patents for NCR.

Beginning in 1907, his NCR co-worker Edward A.

Deeds​ urged Kettering to improve the automobile. Deeds and Kettering invited other NCR engineers, including Harold E. Talbott​, to join them in their quest. They first set out to improve the ignition. In 1909, Kettering resigned from NCR to work full-time on automotive developments which included the invention of the self-starting ignition.


In 1928, Thomas Midgley, Jr. and Kettering invented a “Miracle Compound” called Freon. Freon is now infamous for greatly adding to the depletion of the earth’s ozone shield.

Refrigerators from the late 1800s until 1929 used the toxic gases, ammonia (NH3), methyl chloride (CH3Cl), and sulfur dioxide (SO2), as refrigerants. Several fatal accidents occurred in the 1920s because of methyl chloride leakage from  refrigerators. People started leaving their refrigerators in their backyards. A collaborative effort began between three American corporations, Frigidaire, General Motors and DuPont to search for a less dangerous method of refrigeration.

Freon represents several different chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which are used in commerce and industry. The CFCs are a group of aliphatic organic compounds containing the elements carbon and fluorine, and, in many cases, other halogens (especially chlorine) and hydrogen.

Freons are colorless, odorless, nonflammable, noncorrosive gases or liquids.

Kettering died in November 1958.

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