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#125 Charles Kettering (inventor, engineer, founder)
May 15th, 2020 | E125

What I learned from reading Professional Amateur: The Biography of Charles Franklin Kettering by Thomas Boyd


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[3:06] If you had to summarize Charles Kettering this is the way you would do it: “As symbol of progress and the American way of life—as creator of ideas and builder of industries and employment—as inspirer of men to nobler thoughts and greater accomplishments—as foe of ignorance and discouragement—as friend of learning and optimistic resolve—Charles F. Kettering stands among the great men of all time.”

[3:36] He was an American inventor, engineer, businessman, and the holder of 186 patents. He was a founder of Delco, and was head of research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947. Among his most widely used automotive developments were the electrical starting motor and leaded gasoline. He was also responsible for the invention of Freon refrigerant for refrigeration and air conditioning systems. He developed  the world's first aerial missile. He led the advancement of practical, lightweight two-stroke diesel engines, revolutionizing the locomotive and heavy equipment industries.

[4:42] This is Ket talking about why it is so important to approach your work with the mindset that you are a professional amateur: We are simply professional amateurs. We are amateurs because we are doing things for the first time. We are professional because we know we are going to have a lot of trouble. The price of progress is trouble. And I don’t think the price is too high.

[6:52] There is a quote from Thomas Edison that says “We don't know a millionth of one percent about anything.” Ket has that same belief. This is Ket echoing Thomas Edison: “In reality, we have only begun to knock a few chips from the great quarry of knowledge that has been given us to dig out and use. We are like the two fellows who started to walk from New York to San Francisco. When they got over into New Jersey, one said: “We must be pretty nearly there. We have been walking a long, long time.” That is just how we are in what we know technically. We have just barely begun.

[9:57] I am enthusiastic about being an American because I came from the hills in Ohio. I was a hillbilly. 

[10:21] I thought the only thing involved in opportunity was whether I knew how to think with my head and how to do with my hands.

[13:37] One lesson from his childhood that stuck with him his whole life is that you need to only worry about things you can control. One of the older men is teaching him this through a story: Besides learning about water power and flour mills, he got from the wise old miller some bits of philosophy which he stored in his young mind. “A lot of people are bound to worry,” the miller once told him. “If you can do something about it, you ought to worry. I would think there was something wrong with you if you didn’t. But if you can’t do anything, then worrying is just like running this mill when there is no grist to grind. All that does is to wear out the mill.”

[14:49] He is not interested in rote memorization. He wants to understand the principles behind the thing. He wants to know the why.

[18:12] The man from whom he learned most was Hiram Sweet, the wagon maker. But Sweet was more than a wagon maker. He was, as Kettering said long afterward, “an engineer of such keen ability as to be remarkable. You would no more think of running across such a man in a small town than you would of flying without a flying machine.” Hiram Sweet had invented and built a self-computing cash register which was in daily use at the drugstore. He had also made an astronomical clock. “Where did you find out all this?” Kettering asked Sweet. “I work in this wagon shop ten hours a day,” he replied, “from six-thirty in the morning until five-thirty in the afternoon; and when I have no wagon work to do I work on Sweet’s head.” Years afterward, when Kettering had become a noted man, he recalled the days spent in Sweet’s wagon shop, “Letting him work on my head . . . I learned more from that old wagon maker than I did in college. The world was so wonderful and he knew so little about it that he hated to sleep.”

[20:22] Ket got what he said later was one of the important lessons he learned in college. He learned it from the eminent actor, Joseph Jefferson. Jefferson, together with his company, came to the university town to play his famous part of Rip Van Winkle.

One of the men asked him how often he had played the part of Rip Van Winkle. 

The great actor told just how many hundreds of times he had played Rip. 

“Don’t you get terribly tired doing it so often?” he was asked. 

“Yes, I did get tired after a while. But the people wanted Rip. And so I went on playing him. I said to myself, ‘It doesn’t matter how you feel. Your job is to entertain the audience.’ Then I made up my mind that I would try to portray Rip Van Winkle just a little better each time. And that constant effort at improving the part has kept up my interest and enthusiasm.”

[23:15] There is a time during Henry Ford’s third attempt at building an automobile manufacturing company. And he comes to see Charlie Sorensen.

He's like, “You know what? We're about to run out of money. I guess I'm just not going be able to accomplish this goal.”

There's this conversation that takes place between Henry and Charlie and at the end, Ford is fired back up. Ford was like “I felt like quitting at the beginning of the conversation. Now I don't.”

A few short years later, he winds up attaining his life goal of building a car so inexpensively that the average person can have it. I think that’s important.

There's so many times in Ford’s life story that he wants to quit, that he's disheartened.

[26:44] The obstacle of not knowing how never kept him from undertaking anything he thought needed to be done. “It is a fundamental rule with me,” he said once, “that if I want to do something I start, whether I know how or not. . . . As a rule you can find that out by trying.”

[28:04] Every great improvement has come after repeated failures. Virtually nothing comes out right the first time. Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement.

[36:18] Remembering the loyal support she (his wife) gave him during that trying period and afterward, Kettering said of her, “She was a great help in those early struggles, for she never got discouraged.” After she passes away from cancer he says she was the only thing in his life that he never tried to improve.

[41:19] How Ket and his partner financed their company: To get even that small endeavor under way Kettering and Deeds had to put in all the money they could scrape up, and they mortgaged everything they had. Deeds put a mortgage on his house and Kettering on a lot that he owned. Both borrowed money on their life insurance policies. They also put up their patents and the contract with Cadillac as collateral for a loan from the bank. Cadillac paid them some money in advance. They sold some preferred stock, too, and raised money in every way possible.

[42:09] All human development, no matter what form it takes, must be outside the rules; otherwise, we would never have anything new.

[45:29] Kettering admired The Wright Brothers and all they did in overcoming obstacles to successful flight. Those obstacles were psychological as well as physical, for it was commonly believed then that heavier-than-air flight was impossible.  “The Wright Brothers,” Kettering said, “flew right through the smoke screen of impossibility.”

[46:08] I have always had a rule for myself. Never fly when the birds don’t, because they have had a lot of experience.

[49:22] The destruction of a theory is of no consequence for theories are only steppingstones. More great scientific developments have been made by stumbling than by what is thought of as science. In my opinion an ounce of experimentation is worth a pound of theory.

[50:57] Ket hates committees: Mrs. Kettering read about Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic, she said to her husband, “How wonderful that he did it all alone!” 

“It would have been still more wonderful,” Kettering replied, “if he had done it with a committee.”

[51:30] We find that in research a certain amount of intelligent ignorance is essential to progress; for, if you know too much, you won’t try the thing.

[54:42] New ideas are the hardest things in the world to merchandise.

[56:03] So great was his respect for independent thought and initiative in others that it was often difficult for those working on a project to find out just what he himself thought ought to be done in a given circumstance. He was careful not to stamp out a spark of fire in anyone. Instead, he would fan it to a bright glow. 

[57:31] He has been an inspiration to me and to the whole organization, particularly in directing our thoughts and our imagination and our activities toward doing a better job technically and the tremendous importance of technological progress.

[1:00:07] You have to try things: Action without intelligence is a form of insanity, but intelligence without action is the greatest form of stupidity in the world.

[1:00:19] In putting out new things troubles are not the exception. They are the rule. That is why I have said on so many occasions that the price of progress is trouble.

[1:03:16] Let the competition think you are crazy. By the time they get it it will be too late: If you will help them keep on thinking that, we’ll not be bothered with competition during the years in which we are working out the bugs and developing a really good locomotive.

[1:05:14] It is not what two groups do alike that matters. It’s what they do differently that is liable to count.

[1:05:47] There are no places in an industrial situation where anyone can sit and rest. It is a question of change, change, change all the time. You can’t have profit without progress.

[1:06:18] We don’t know enough to plan new industries: You can’t plan industries, because you can’t tell whether something is going to be an industry or not when you see it, and the chances are that it grows up right in front of you without ever being recognized as being an industry. Who planned the automobile industry? Nobody thought anything of it at all. It grew in spite of planning.

[1:08:22] Because the field of human knowledge is so far from complete, he thinks our schools ought to teach that we know very little about anything.

[1:09:04] The greatest thing that most fellows are lacking today is the fool trait of jumping into something and sticking at it until they come out all right.

[1:09:54] He seems to have a complete absence of any timidity whatsoever. 

[1:10:54] I can conceive of nothing more foolish than to say the world is finished. We are not at the end of our progress but at the beginning. 

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