Tuesday, September 16, 2014
"Boss" Kettering, General Motors, and "Keeping the Customer Dissatisfied."
Kettering, and “Keeping the Customer Dissatisfied”
Biographer Stewart W. Leslie has said this about Kettering and his technological style: “He made corporate bureaucracy work for him. Within the largest private organization of his time he fashioned a managerial role that proved technological entrepreneurship could flourish, and one man could still make a difference.”7 Kettering had remarkable personal qualities that distinguished him as one of the leading industrial scientists of his and any other era in American history. He was sharply inquisitive, and this trait led to an intimate knowledge associated with the problem at hand, the result of close observation and direct experience. Kettering was equally comfortable in both theory and practice, and he usually focused his attention on a commercial bottleneck where improvement seemed possible rather than striking out into completely unexplored areas. Yet he had little use for high-powered scientific theories and abstruse terminology that usually had little applicability in an industrial setting. He once said that “Thermodynamics is a big word for covering up our inability to understand temperature.”8
Born in Loudonville, Ohio, Kettering attended The Ohio State University, majoring in electrical engineering.9 Perhaps it was due to the strain of studies, but whatever the cause he temporarily lost his eyesight, only to regain it after working as a telephone line repairman. In 1903 he took a job at the National Cash Register Company (NCR), working in Invention Department No. 4 and was charged with the development of an electrical motor that would possess enough torque to operate a mechanical cash register. Dissatisfied with boss John Patterson, Kettering, along with Edward Deeds (then a vice-president at NCR), Bill Chryst and others, began work on an integrated automotive electrical system, a technology that would ultimately greatly improve the automobile as a form of transportation.
In 1908, on the eve of Kettering’s involvement in the development of an efficient automobile ignition system, it was well recognized that ignition or providing the spark to ignite the fuel was a weak link. As Stewart Leslie has recounted:
A proper ignition for such a variable, high-speed engine had frustrated inventors for decades. Continental engineers, led by Robert Bosch, had eventually worked out an acceptable magneto around the turn of the century. Americans still preferred dry cell battery ignitions, which were cheaper though less reliable. However, battery ignition had its own shortcomings. To provide a spark of adequate intensity from a relatively small bank of batteries, the dry cells were connected to an induction coil in such a way that the primary circuit was repeatedly interrupted by a master vibrator that created a shower of sparks, which then depleted the non-rechargeable batteries after a few hundred miles of driving.10
Kettering responded to this problem by drawing on his experience gained at NCR. He took a magnetic relay that he had used for a cash register design, and used it to serve as a holding coil that would release the ignition contact only at the proper moment in the cycle and send one intense spark instead of a shower. He subsequently sold this ignition coil design to Henry Leland at Cadillac, and this success would not only form the basis of the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco) but also further work leading to an integrated electrical system. That technology involved a self starter, generator, voltage regulator and lighting units, which were also first sold to Cadillac before being marketed to other companies.11 By early 1913, Delco occupied three floors of a rented factory building in East Dayton, Ohio, employed 1,500 workers, and had sold a total of 35,000 starting, lighting, and ignition systems. Despite the catastrophic Dayton Flood of 1913, Delco continued to grow, and thus by the end of that year the firm tripled its annual output, to more than 45,000 units. Profitable and innovative, it would be purchased by Durant in 1916.
Kettering’s successes at GM as head of research would far outweigh his failures. The two main areas of research at the laboratory were centered on studying the combustion process in engine cylinders and the nature of materials. In both cases, definitive answers to a scientific understanding of these important areas were not forthcoming. Yet, he once said, “You must learn how to fail intelligently, for failing is one of the greatest arts in the world.” Indeed, it is instructive to look at his most notable failure, the copper-cooled engine. The story tells us much about the nature of engineering at GM, and how it was organized during the period between World Wars I and II.
In 1919, Kettering had become convinced that there was a great future for an air cooled, as opposed to a water cooled, engine. Light and maintenance-free in terms of freezing and adding coolant, the air-cooled engine had been developed in Europe and America, the most notable successes being the early Franklin engine and the designs of British automobile engineer Frederick W. Lanchester. Kettering and his research staff, including mechanical engineer Thomas Midgley, focused on the use of copper fins to dissipate heat emanating from cylinders. By 1920 a team of engineers and scientists had developed a technique to fix the copper fins to the exterior of cylinder walls. Pierre DuPont, at that time in charge of GM and trained as an engineer, saw the possibilities of this design, and encouraged Kettering to move forward on the project. What DuPont and other GM executives recognized was that this light and economical engine could be inexpensively manufactured in both 4- and 6- cylinder versions, and be used in the low- priced Oakland and Chevrolet models. Especially with regard to the Chevrolet, it was thought that the copper cooled engine would provide the edge for Chevrolet to compete with the Ford Model T.
Despite the enormous resources that GM dedicated to this project, however, the copper–cooled-engine failed in the end. Kettering and his group could design and make small quantities of engines that worked in Dayton, where GM research laboratories were located. But in Detroit, manufacturing engineers could not or would not make engines that consumers were satisfied with. These engines often lacked power; pumped oil, threw fan belts, overheated, or just ran poorly. In sum, the research engineers and manufacturing engineers were at odds, and until GM in 1925 formed a technical committee to bring the two groups together, ventures like the copper cooled engine were doomed to failure.
Success would come to Kettering and Midgley related to tetra-ethyl lead, however. Around 1920 there was a fear that the world was running out of oil, and therefore leading automobile industry executives thought that engines had to be designed to run more efficiently. One way to do this was to increase the compression ratio of the engine, or the volume swept in the cylinder by the piston, but increased compression ratios led to pre-detonation of the fuel-air mixture, a phenomenon that was called knocking. Kettering initiated a search for an additive to prevent knocking, and after many trials, discovered an organo-metallic substance called tetra-ethyl lead, or TEL. There was one hitch with this project, however. Lead compounds had been known since Roman times, to be notoriously poisonous, but it was claimed that in the ratio of 1:1300 in gasoline, the material was harmless. TEL was seen by industry leaders as a “gift from God;” tests made by laboratories after 1925 demonstrated that TEL was supposedly safe for mechanics, gas station attendants and consumers.12 Of course, as we know now, it was not. At low levels lead proved to be a neuro-toxin, but it would remain until the 1960s before improved chemical instrumentation demonstrated the extent of the public health dangers posed by this substance. Beginning in the 1970s, TEL was phased out in the U.S., but only after two generations were exposed to relatively high amounts of lead that eventually entered the human body.