Looking AHEAD with “BOSS KET” (Feb, 1935)

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Looking AHEAD with “BOSS KET”

By Frazier Hunt

THIS Charles F. Kettering, head of the great experimental laboratories of the General Motors company, is a dispeller of gloom and a true champion of hope.

“Why there is ten times more opportunity right now than there was in my day, thirty or forty years ago,” “Boss Ket” fairly barked at me. “It’s true that young men right now are having trouble finding a job, but that shouldn’t keep them from going ahead and learning something. If all a fellow wants out of life is a job, then he doesn’t want much, and he won’t go very far.

“You know I often tell my people that I don’t want any fellow who has a job working for me; what I want is a fellow whom a job has. In other words, I want the job to get the fellow and not the fellow to get the job. And I want that job to get hold of this young man so hard that no matter where he is the job has got him for keeps. I want that job to have him in its clutches when he goes to bed at night, and when he gets up in the morning I want that same job to be sitting on the foot of his bed telling him that it’s time to get up and go to work. And when a job gets a fellow that way he’ll amount to something.”

“But there are thousands of young men eager to be captured by a job right now,” I argued.

“Boss Ket” crossed his long legs and looked at me out of his deep-set, understanding, black eyes.

“That’s a temporary condition, mostly ‘ the result of the upheaval caused by the war,” he answered. “The thing is for a young man not to get discouraged because a job doesn’t tap him on the shoulder, like the secret societies at Yale used to do on Tap Day. Somehow or other he must go ahead learning things—preparing himself for the day when the tap does come. He’s got to keep his eye on his main objective in life. He’s got to keep on, remembering that he can’t lose an investment stored in his mind.

“What we need more than anything else now is brand new ideas. We’ve about used up our old stock. We’ve been occupied in making things instead of creating them. In standardizing production we unfortunately standardized ideas. We’ve made over and over again the same old things, when we should be constantly making new things —endlessly changing. We’ve got to start all over again and create a whole new crop of new ideas, new things.

“You see we’ve used most of the knowledge that was handed down to us by the great scientific minds of sixty or seventy years ago. Now we must have some new knowledge to work on. Probably it will have to do with the nature of man and his world. College professors would call it biological chemistry. It’s a field as broad as life. Why, it’s just that—man and life. Let today’s youth take hold of that idea. Say, the ground of knowledge hasn’t even begun to be scratched. You see, real education is something like climbing up a mountain side—the higher up you go the more you see.”

Until he was twenty-two and started to Ohio State University, Kettering was a poor, raw-boned, Ohio country boy who had worked hard every day of his life. That day, thirty-five years ago, when he registered in the engineering school, he had $35 in his pocket. It was all he had and no one was to give him or lend him any more. It took him five years to finish college—and then he threw his diploma in the wastebasket. “I didn’t come here for that; I came here to learn something,” he said. He had learned something. He had learned to think for himself. He had learned to distrust all don’ts. He figures that what we don’t know is at least a hundred times more than what we do know. And he believes that much of future knowledge—elemental knowledge about the structure of man and his world —is now held in check by words, figures, formulae, many of which are wrong. He says that we must go back and plow under a lot of the “laws” and “don’ts” given us when science was young.

“Boss Ket” took me to a room across from his office and stopped in front of a motor. It was set on a pedestal, almost as if it were a bust or statue.

“About the same time I was going to college there were two home-trained mechanics running a little bicycle shop in Dayton,” he said. “They had the fantastic idea that man could build a machine in which he could fly. They watched birds and tinkered with homemade motors. A sister who taught school helped them with her savings, and they just kept at it. They wouldn’t be licked. Most people laughed at them, but they went right on. And sure enough they did fly. That engine there is the second or third model they built. They let a job get them.”

We walked over toward a glass case. At one end was a strange collection consisting of a candle, an old-fashioned Edison lamp, and a modern Mazda bulb.

“See that?” Kettering questioned. “One hundred and thirty of those tallow candles burning 1,000 hours would cost today $1,500. Now it would take eight of those original Edison lamps to equal 130 can- dies, and if you burned these eight 1,000 hours the expense would be $68.75. But this new 100-watt Mazda lamp, with its 130 candlepower, will burn 1,000 hours at a total cost of $7.35. And someone who reads this in Popular Mechanics may add a fourth and possibly a fifth lamp to this exhibit.

“He’ll have a hundred times the chances Edison had. Did you know Edison never went to school but three months in his whole life, and then he was sent home because his teacher said he was too dumb to bother with? But school had nothing to do with his insatiable thirst for knowledge. Why, you couldn’t stop him.

“People fail to remember that there is no such thing as fixity in anything in life,” he went on. “There is nothing static. Everything is in perpetual change. The main trouble with our industry today is that we got to making the same things over and over again. We got interested in making things and not in changing things. That’s where the scientist, the inventor, the creator comes in. He’s interested in change. He wants to see new things come to life.

“Take the whole field of the motor car today. We are just beginning to recognize now that the possibility of developing real power from internal-combustion engines is in its infancy—that we are just on the verge of real development. It’s hard to believe, but our motor cars today deliver under normal driving conditions only about eight or ten per cent of the total energy in the fuel they consume. That means that a small car could actually get something like 200 or 300 miles for every gallon of gasoline used.”

“Boss Ket” was right at home when he was talking about motor fuel. He and his boys had developed ethyl gas, along with many other things including the self-starter. Many industries exist today because of his untiring activities.

“What’ll the future car be?” I interrupted.

“I haven’t any idea,” replied “Boss Ket,” “only I’m certain of one thing—the passengers will come first in the new car. I mean by that, they and not the engine will be given the first consideration. Up to the present we have been building a car around the engine, and then we’ve tucked the passengers into any space that was left. From now on man is going to be given the first consideration. And that will be true about everything else in tomorrow’s America.”

I suggested that the man of tomorrow might have a new home.

“He certainly will,” Kettering answered. “He will live in controlled atmosphere. This phase, ‘air cooled’ is entirely misleading, for controlled atmosphere not only means that the air will be cooled—or heated in winter—but that it will be washed and cleaned and the proper amount of moisture put into it or removed from it. This will have a profound effect on the life and comfort of man. But nothing can be done effectively until we find a proper double-window insulation.”

“How about the portable steel house?” I asked.

“I have little faith in it,” he replied. “The cost of transportation will be too great, for one thing. Each section of the country will use the type of material that is at hand. But our future scientists will solve all that later. All we’ve got to know is that there will be change. It’ll give these young job-seekers something to do to think it out.”

I mentioned Diesel engines and asked how development was going with them.

“Now, there is a case of exactly what I’ve been talking about,” Kettering said. “The old Diesel engine had been here for twenty-five years and everybody thought it was a failure. It was only the type that was the failure and not the principle. During these past twenty-five years we’ve been booming ahead in metallurgy and when we applied the things we’d learned to many old failures we found that we’d solved fifty per cent of the problem immediately. When a fellow tries out something and it fails he must not off-hand condemn the validity of the idea. The principle may still be all right. It may be that some adjustment, some combination, some particular material, some technique is wrong. We’ve buried scores of principles in scrap heaps when it wasn’t the principle at all that failed. And one thing everybody must get into their heads is this business of perseverance.

“We’re all cluttered up with definitive knowledge and not factual knowledge. We give a name or a symbol or a figure to a problem and then stop. As a matter of fact we know very little about fundamental knowledge. We have learned to rely on the symbolic method of expression with the result that we have failed to find the fundamentals involved. Many of these were abandoned years ago and it may be our next job to go back and find lost fundamentals. Fifty or a hundred years ago when they established what might be called the fundamental philosophy of, let us say, physics they formed ideas and conceptions that under the test of modern science may be found totally wrong.

“In other words, we’ve been carrying into the future the errors of the past. And we can’t do that. As a matter of fact we should be pretty choosey as to what we carry over in every phase of our life. We must keep changing. We must start each scientific cycle with a clean record. We’re now entering the cycle of biological chemistry. We’re going to study man. We’re soon going to be as familiar with his hidden machinery as we are with an automobile engine.”

“Just what will the next generation give us?” I questioned.

“I can no more guess that accurately than a man forty years ago could have prophesied just what the wonders of today would be,” he replied. “By the way the late Dr. Samuel W. Stratton prepared a list of what he calls ‘The Nine Wonders of the Modern World.’ I’ll give it to you for your Popular Mechanics readers.”

I copied the list as it appears on a preceding page from a large printed card and “Boss Ket” walked toward the door with me.

“I can’t get discouraged about America even if I tried,” he said as we shook hands. “We’re all right. We’ve just got to go ahead and mind our own business and think up new things to make—and then there will be a job for everybody making them. We’ve got the things here to do it with—great natural resources, tools, sturdy people, imaginative minds. What we need most of all is a whole new crop of inventions. Tell inventors to get to work.”

  1. Andrew L. Ayers says: January 16, 20112:14 pm

    It seems like every picture I’ve seen of Kettering, he always looked like he was a little “off”, but he was a smart man. We’d do well here in America today to heed his words in the last paragraph of this article.

  2. Casandro says: January 18, 20111:38 am

    Wow! Someone from the car industry claiming that innovation is not completely evil and harmful to our society? Today such a person would be kicked out of the industry the first time he opens his mouth.

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