Saturday, October 31, 2015

Professional Amateur by T. A. Boyd

Charles F. Kettering’s legacy as a philanthropist is memorialized in the names of the institutions he supported such as the Kettering Foundation and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. As an engineer, I’m more familiar with is reputation as an inventor and innovator, especially in automotive engineering.

Kettering’s associate, T. A. Boyd, memorialized him in the biography Professional Amateur. I think the title is intended to convey Kettering’s humility and determination to not let expertise or established knowledge get in the way of progress. As an engineer, and arguably a scientist, Kettering was devoted to experimentation.

As with others of his era (he was born in 1876), Kettering’s education was not traditional by current standards. After graduating high school, he began teaching in one-room schoolhouses in Ohio such as the one he had attended. He later attended the College of Wooster, studying Greek with an eye toward becoming a pastor, and eventually graduated from the Ohio State University with a degree in electrical engineering. Problems with his eyes caused interruptions in his formal education.

Kettering valued his school experience, but he also valued his practical experience. He got a job installing poles for a telephone company and worked his way into installing lines and switchboards. He and friends undertook amateur experiments in chemistry and electricity. Even as a child he took great interest in nature.

After introducing us to his early life, the book turns to his career as an inventor and research engineer. He established what is now Delco, which he sold to General Motors. He had a long career leading the research efforts at GM. The final chapters of the book describe Kettering’s views on business and education and his career as a public speaker.

Kettering met his wife, Olive, while working for a rural telephone company. Their son, Gene, followed his father into engineering and eventually had a successful career in designing and building diesel-electric locomotives a General Motors.

Boyd was a friend of Kettering, who was still alive when Professional Amateur was published. Needless to say, the book is very complimentary to its subject. Few faults are attributed to the man, except that Kettering is depicted as being so absorbed in his research that he would overlook social conventions like keeping a nice suit clean, entertaining guests, or remembering the purpose of his appointments. The research engineer left his business affairs mostly in the hands of trusted partners so he could concentrate on the work that interested him, though Boyd’s depiction indicates Kettering was shrewd about business.

I don’t think the book is intended for children, but it is written in simple and direct style that might be accessible to many young readers. It was published in 1957, so more recent or thorough biographies may be available. For instance, Kettering introduced tetraethyl lead to gasoline as a way to reduce knock and improve fuel efficiency. Though it was considered safe at the time (as Boyd points out), the lead emissions from automobiles has be reevaluated sense and we no longer use leaded gasoline. The book was written before anyone was seriously aware of or concerned about this issue, so it does not consider it.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Boyd, T. A. Professional Amateur: The Biography of Charles Franklin Kettering. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1957.