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Charles F. Kettering, known as “Boss Ket” to his fellow workers, is chiefly interested in finding the answers to unanswered questions. Two of the foremost that have puzzled him are: “Why is grass green?” and “Why can we see through a pane of glass?”

Head of the General Motors Research Corporation, “Boss Ket” devotes practically all his time to research, to discovering how it can be done when experts and formulas say “It can’t be done.”

He was born on a farm near London-ville, Ohio, in 1876, educated in a country district school, and was graduated from Ohio State Engineering School in 1904. That same year he revolutionized cash register manufacturing by developing an electric motor to run cash registers. In 1912 he revolutionized the automobile industry and made driving a pleasure by perfecting the self-starter motor and modern lighting and ignition systems.

YOU want me to say something about research . . .? Well, before we set out on any such discussion as that, we should have a pretty fair idea what research is. There is a great deal of misconception about the term. People think research is something mysterious, something romantic. They are fooled by the array of test tubes and complicated apparatus they see in a laboratory.They speak of research as something in a class with sorcery.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing mysterious about research. It is not romantic in the popular sense of the word. The fact is, there’s not much difference between a laboratory and a blacksmith shop. The retorts and apparatus of the laboratory are just our anvils on which we shape new ideas into useful things. The word “laboratory” simply means “workshop.”

Research, properly understood is not a profession. It is not just a business. It is not a form of magic.

It is a state of mind.

I often define research by saying:Research is trying to find out what you are going to do when you can’t do what you are doing now.Research is that habit of thought which causes a man to question established ideas, to preserve an open mind toward new ideas, and to strike out on new and untried paths in persistent search of definite practical objectives, calculated to improve upon natural resources to the general gain of mankind.

Now, all that sounds very complicated and obscure. Let’s see if we can put the idea into simpler terms by quoting an example of true research—the career of John W. Hyatt.

John Hyatt was a man who perceived that the world was in need of something. He was not interested in any of the world’s great theoretical needs. No, the thing he was interested in was a very humble and comparatively unimportant necessity — an artificial billiard ball.

At that time billiard balls were made of real ivory, and this was costly. No material had ever been found which would give the same results as natural ivory, at a cost within the reach of thousands of people who wanted cheap billiard balls. Mr. Hyatt entered a contest for a prize offered for a good artificial ivory.

His quest for artificial ivory led him into a study of the rolling and bouncing qualities of balls made of various materials. One time he was called upon to make repairs on a machine for crushing sugar cane. And from his study of billiard balls and his work on the machine, he hit upon the idea which later was developed into the Hyatt roller bearing.

When he had invented the roller bearing, he returned to his original quest. Again, he sought an artificial ivory. And soon he stumbled upon a substance which he developed into celluloid.

He went further and invented a new type of camera film. Minor achievements followed along the way, but still Hyatt refused to be turned aside from his first objective—an artificial ivory billiard ball.

Year after year he worked. Finally, toward the close of his life he found the right material.

In his quest for this comparatively trivial improvement upon nature, John Hyatt had given life to new industries employing thousands of workers, and had invented new products of real importance to the world.

The story of John W. Hyatt exemplifies the chief characteristics of true research. First of all, research is always open-minded. It forces ideas to stand upon their own feet. It refuses to accept established ideas on the sole grounds that they are established. And it likewise refuses to condemn new ideas simply because they are new. It insists upon valuing all ideas at their intrinsic worth.

When Hyatt began his life-long adventure in research the idea prevailed that only ivory could be used for billiard balls. But Hyatt refused to honor this belief merely because of its venerable age. This “open-mindedness” is identical with what is sometimes called the “scientific spirit.” It is the spirit in which all progress, from the beginning of the world, has been made.

Industrial research must also be practical. It can not be isolated from life. When you strike out in search of some improvement upon nature, you must be sure that it is an improvement which somebody will want.

Millions of dollars have been wasted developing doomed ideas because their originators failed to consider the wants and needs of the other human beings who were to use their products. For example, a few years ago, America had a rash of “cycle cars.” A little group of automobile men jumped at the conclusion that because small, inexpensive, low-powered automobiles were popular in some parts of Europe, they would be welcome in the United States. They set out to revolutionize the automobile industry.And they failed.

If they had stopped to ask themselves “Who will want this kind of car?” they would never have made their venture. The truth is that very few people could be persuaded to buy the midget cars. The public did not want economy at the sacrifice of power, beauty, strength and the capacity to travel long distances in comfort. People wanted bigger cars, roomier cars, more rugged cars.

A third main characteristic of true research is its tenacity of purpose. True research sets out with a definite objective and follows that objective to the end. No matter what discoveries it may make along the way, it refuses to be permanently diverted from the original objective. Like John Hyatt searching for his artificial billiard ball, the true research engineer never gives up.

There is another essential of research which may sound strange to you.But when I describe it as an “essential” of research I choose that word deliberately.

Research must keep in touch with youth.

The spirit of research is essentially a youthful spirit. It is, after all, the same spirit (tempered by reason of course) which prompts the small child to make a personal test of the established idea that a hot stove must not be touched. It is the fresh, questioning, hopeful spirit of youth.

That is one reason why you must keep in touch with youth—why you must actually keep young—if you would succeed at modern research. But there is an additional and even more important reason why the research engineer must keep in touch with youth. And this reason has to do with the necessity of being practical.

When you were born, everybody in the world was older than you. Before you were a year old, there were more than two million people in the world younger than you. This ratio increases progressively. At 25, half the people in the world are younger than you. At 50 you are older than almost nine-tenths of your fellow human beings. You can see for yourself that when you have reached an age of maturity the product you turn out is going to be used mainly by people younger than yourself. And any research goal, therefore, must be chosen in reference to the wants and necessities of younger people. Youth dominates industry, art, and commerce, and it rules research.

This requirement in the true research engineer is particularly difficult to maintain, because it is human nature to let our thoughts fall into grooves. When a man gets along toward middle age, his ideas are apt to crystallize.The older he gets the more people he finds in the world whose ideas and habits are strange to him. As a sort of unconscious defense mechanism, he persuades himself that the old way (his way) of doing things is the only right way. He closes his mind to new ideas. If he’s in any business where success depends upon pleasing large masses of people, he fails.

I make a very strong personal effort to keep in touch with younger minds. I think it is a good thing to drop false dignity sometimes and come in contact with youth on an equal footing.

In the General Motors laboratories, we have many young men and many older men.

The young men give us new ideas and fresh slants on our problems. The older men contribute wisdom and the judgment born of experience. Neither group could get along very well without the other.

The old days of the professional inventor are past. The modern research engineer is a vastly different person. We no longer have inventors in our shops just to invent whatever they happen to think of. Invention has become a complex thing, a matter of team work among many men, rather than genius on the part of one. Chemists, metallurgists, engineers,mathematicians and physicists must all contribute their knowledge. Even the simplest of our problems demands the cooperative work of many minds.

The importance of invention to economic welfare is something which men began to realize only when the recent depression struck the world. I am no business man. I am a mechanic. But I believe that lack of new ideas, refusal to accept new ideas and the assumption that our civilization was a finished job, were major causes of the depression.

There were other causes, too, of course— unwise foreign loans, trade barriers between nations, and speculation, for example. But a big cause—and a peculiarly American cause —of the depression was standardization of ideas.

People found the prosperity of the 20’s so good that they refused to go forward for fear of losing it. They fitted products into the groove of mass production so solidly that the products could not change in response to human needs.

The whole thing was based on a fallacy— the fallacy that people want standardization.

It isn’t true. It is not the standard, it’s the new that people buy.

The immediate need is for new things which the public will feel it can not do without. We must recreate the desire to buy. The world is crying for new improvements on nature. And it is amazing how little we really know about the simplest natural things.

One of our biggest problems is to answer the simple question:”Why is the grass green?”

When men can answer that question thoroughly, they may have achieved something as important as the discovery of fire. For that question involves the whole vast mystery of how nature turns sunlight into energy.

All Energy Comes From Sun

You plant a kernel of corn or a seed of grass. In a few weeks or months you get a blade of grass or a corn stalk weighing many hundreds of times as much as the original seed. Then you can burn the stalk, put the ash back into the ground for fertilizer, plant another seed, and the whole marvelous process takes place again. Nature takes the sunlight and converts it into energy.

If we can find out exactly what reaction takes place between the blade of grass and the sunlight which beats down upon it, we may be able to transform sunlight into energy ourselves.

Every bit of energy used by mankind came originally from the sun. The sun, beating down on prehistoric forests, produced the coal which we burn in the boilers that turn our power generators. The sun, beating down on rivers and oceans, keeps in operation the continual circulation of water over the face of the earth which turns our turbines at Niagara or Keokuk.

Keep Trying for Success

But at present, not knowing the processes of nature, we have to let her take her own time. We can use only the energy which she has stored up. If we can find out exactly why the grass is green perhaps we can put the sun to work for us—and what vast wonders that may accomplish we can only guess.

Thus the future progress of civilization depends upon research. If civilization is to go steadily forward the research “state of mind,” must not be limited to the fields of mechanics and invention. It must spread into all fields of thought.

Try it out in your own life. Write “why?” after everything. Select an audacious goal, keep your mind open, and keep trying.

That is the way to success. And that is also the way, incidentally, to keep from growing old.

  1. Gasbow says: February 7, 20084:18 am

    did they seriously not know how plants work in 1935? i can’t really believe that

  2. Firebrand38 says: February 7, 20089:27 am

    You were right to be suspicious…



  3. Firebrand38 says: February 7, 200811:10 am

    Oh, and reference seeing through glass http://www.straightdope…

  4. Wade George says: March 25, 20086:49 pm

    Looks like “Boss Ket” has already found the power of grass! 😉

  5. dude says: June 28, 20087:39 am

    For Wade, he sure does man. 🙂

  6. Tim says: March 24, 20092:16 pm

    Why does Charles Kettering remind me a little of the Phantom of the Opera?

  7. Snarky says: August 17, 201010:08 pm

    Charles Kettering looks like Lon Chaney as the Phantom for damn sure. Those glasses and the bad picture don’t help

  8. Firebrand38 says: August 18, 20101:01 pm

    Snarky: I swear your comments remind me of this Professor at CSULB FEA Department. That ain’t a compliment.

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