Biography of Charles Kettering, Inventor of the Electrical Ignition System

Charles Kettering with His Electric Self Starter
Charles Kettering with a model of his first electric self-starter at the Chicago World's Fair.

Bettmann/Getty Images 

The first electrical ignition system or electric starter motor for cars was invented by General Motors (GM) engineers Clyde Coleman and Charles Kettering. The self-starting ignition was first installed in a Cadillac on February 17, 1911. The invention of the electric starter motor by Kettering eliminated the need for hand cranking. The United States Patent #1,150,523, was issued to Kettering in 1915. 

Kettering founded the company Delco and headed research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947. 

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 he was able to go back to school. Kettering graduated 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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Bellis, Mary. "Biography of Charles Kettering, Inventor of the Electrical Ignition System." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 28). Biography of Charles Kettering, Inventor of the Electrical Ignition System. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Biography of Charles Kettering, Inventor of the Electrical Ignition System." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).