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Charles F. Kettering: Science of Automotive Engineering, 1936

Research Efforts

As the automobile industry advanced in Detroit, Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors recruited Kettering two years later to lead the entire company's research efforts. A center, the General Motors Research Corporation, was built in Dayton for this single purpose. Kettering, a prolific inventor, led investigations into all areas of automobile improvement, stressing those which would directly benefit the customer. Advances were made in safety and all automobile processes: brakes, gears, suspension, and lighting. Incidental discoveries such as the coolant Freon, used in refrigeration, also resulted.

Kettering's most widely-used invention was the use of tetraethyl lead as a gasoline additive to solve the problem of engine "knock," a condition of incomplete fuel combustion that causes rapid engine wear. The research team arrived at the lead solution after checking many ingenious approaches and different additive candidates over a period of seven years leading to the 1923 introduction. It remained in use until recognition of its health hazards in the 1960s—after Kettering's death—caused the switchover to lead-free gasoline.

Kettering next turned his attention to diesel engines, inspired by their low fuel consumption and high power potential. Experimenting with diesel power on his own yacht, assisted by his son, Eugene, in the design stage, Kettering saw the outcome of his work when General Motors manufactured the first diesel freight locomotive in 1939.