The Pliers and Screwdriver Man
Michael Burgan, History Author and playwright




Though educated in electrical and mechanical engineering, Charles Kettering saw himself as a tinkerer. “I’m a pliers and screwdriver man,” he said, “not a theory man.” Combining a faith in practical technology with a can-do spirit, Kettering held 140 patents and revolutionized the auto industry by inventing the electric starter. 

Kettering began his engineering career in 1905, with the National Cash Register Company, where he helped create the first electric cash register. He also worked on projects in his spare time and soon formed his own company, Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, or Delco. At Delco, Kettering designed products for the automotive industry. He developed a battery-powered ignition and better lights. But his greatest breakthrough was the electric starter. Until then, drivers had to stand outside and crank a handle to start their cars. Kettering’s starter was safe and easy to use, and it quickly helped gas-powered cars surpass the popularity of electric- and steam-powered automobiles.

Kettering and his company became part of General Motors in 1916, and Kettering became head of GM’s research laboratory. In that role, he helped create quick-drying auto paint and more powerful engines. He also helped design the first diesel locomotive. Even after retiring from GM in 1947, Kettering remained active in research and promoted the potential of American industry and technology.

Did you know...

In 1945, Charles Kettering and former General Motors’ chairman Alfred Sloan founded the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research. The New York center is a world leader in cancer research.

Michael Burgan studied history at the University of Connecticut before embarking on his career of writing about history, current events, geography, science, and more for children. He worked at Weekly Reader for six years before becoming a freelance author. He is a member of Biographers International Organization and edits its monthly newsletter, The Biographer's Craft. A produced playwright, he is also a member of the Dramatists Guild.

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