At its heart, the story of Delco is one of Ohio ingenuity. The word “Delco” is short for Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, formed in 1909 by Edward A Deeds and Charles F. Kettering. From lightbulbs to air flight, the arteries of Delco’s heart was electricity powered by one of the most well-known names in batteries. Yes, you can still buy Delco batteries at any auto part store. In 1918, General Motors acquired Delco and its fellow companies under United Motors Corporation, and in 1972, General Motors merged Delco with the AC Electronics. So when you’re browsing your favorite auto center, when you see ACDelco batteries, that’s the brand you’re looking for. However, this particular story of electrified Ohio history starts with a cash register.
NATIONAL CASH REGISTER
Edward A. Deeds was born on March 12, 1874 in Granville, Ohio. After graduating as valedictorian from Dennison University, Deeds moved to Dayton in 1898 and worked as a draftsman until he got an invitation to join National Cash Register. NCR was established in Dayton in 1884 by John Henry Patterson to manufacture and sell the “Ritty’s Incorruptable Cashier Machine” [sic] invented by James Ritty in 1879. Cash holding machines needed to be hand cranked to function, so John Henry and his brother Frank were looking for ways to motorize the cash register with the new electricity, and Edward A. Deeds was hired.
Charles F. Kettering was born August 29, 1876, on a farm near Loudonville, Ohio. He attended College of Wooster, then transferred to Ohio State University where he gained his electrical engineering degree in 1904. In his last year at OSU, Edward Deeds from National Cash Register sent a letter to the electrical engineering department looking for their top engineer. The professor responded and Deeds hired Charles Kettering right out of college. These two men went on to form a lifetime professional partnership starting with electrifying National’s cash registers. In the 5 years Kettering worked for NCR, he secured 23 patents for the company.
CRANK IT UP AND DON'T DIE
Vehicles at the time also used hand cranks to generate the initial spark that drove the combustable engine, and that came with a plethora of problems. Broken wrists from the crank coming down hard on hands were so common they had their own name: Chauffeur’s fracture. A tragic moment comes with the story of Byron J. Carter (b. 1863), founding partner of Jackson Automobile Company and Cartercar Company. As legend has it, Carter saw a woman with her stranded Cadillac in the freezing cold on Belle Isle bridge near Detroit. Being one of the most qualified people on the planet to help, Carter offered his assistance, and upon cranking, the car backfired, sending the hand crank right into his jaw, knocking him out cold. The broken jaw - not life threatening on its own - turned into an infection, which turned into pneumonia. Byron J. Carter died on April 6, 1908.
Carter’s good friend was Henry M. Leland (1843-1932, pictured below), founder and manufacturer of the Cadillac vehicle at the center of the story. Leland immediately set out to find a way to turn the engine automatically without the need of a hand crank and ran across a patent from 1903 by Clyde J. Coleman. It was an automatic starter, but bulky and impractical. When Cadillac’s engineers failed to make a viable engine starter that could fit in the engine block, Edward A Deeds started to beckon his friend, Charles F. Kettering, to give the problem a try.
Kettering accepted the challenge. He understood that the automatic ignition starter had to be more powerful with more torque than the engine itself, but it was only needed long enough to start the engine. After that, it can shut off until it’s time to start the engine again. Kettering was able to drastically reduce the size of the automatic ignition starter and produced electrical schematics and ignition starter designs though his new company Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco). He left National Cash Register to form Delco in 1909 with Edward Deeds. A fellow NCR employee named Bill Chryst is credited with shortening the company name to DELCO. Chryst also left NCR to work with Kettering. Of course, an electric starter with massive torque needed a powerful battery, and Kettering was designing that too based on the 1859 design of a French physicist named Gaston Planté who developed the first lead-acid battery. Though it was improved upon in 1881 by fellow Frenchman Camille Alphonse Faure, the automotive battery has basically remained unchanged for 165 years.
A BRAND NEW CADILLAC
On June, 15, 1911, Kettering filed for patent 1,150,523 (the patent was granted August 15, 1915). The next year Leland released the 1912 Cadillac Model Thirty with with the electric starter and automotive battery. This not only revolutionized safety in the automotive industry, but it opened the driving experience to men and women in fear of losing their hand or being stranded on an icy bridge.
In that same year of 1912, Kettering created Delco Light, a power plant for those living in rural areas. It was a gasoline generator that powered batteries, the batteries then being used to power the house, washing machine, water pump, etc. With an automatic loader, the generation will come on only when needed to direct energy. It is one of the most amazing inventions and there’s no way to explain it properly, so here’s Peter Harrison’s YouTube video of the Delco Light in action.
Edward Deeds left National Cash Register in 1915 to dedicate his time to Delco. As the car engines got bigger and more additions were added to the riding experience, Delco was the leading electronics specialists, while also making strides in engine performance. Thomas Midgley, Jr., an engineer at Delco, was the inventor of tetraethyl lead, or as we commonly know it, Ethyl gasoline. Deeds and Kettering formed the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company in 1917, with Orville Wright lending his name to the venture. Co-founder of General Motors, William Crapo Durant, founded United Motors Corporation in 1916 to put several automotive parts and accessory manufacturers under one name. In 1919, United Motors became part of General Motors Corporation and Kettering became head of GM Research department where he remained until his retirement in 1947. He died at his home in Dayton in 1958.
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Deeds was commissioned to serve in The Great War (WW1) as a colonel in the US Army Signal Corps where he managed aircraft procurement. Upon his return to civilian life in 1931, he joined the board of National Cash Register (Deeds quit and rejoined NCR 3 times in his life), later became its president and successfully navigated the company through the Great Depression. Edward Deeds retired in 1957 at age 83, and he died 3 years later in 1960.
THE DELCO IMPACT
Deeds and Kettering created a vast powerhouse of production and invention beyond batteries and starters. Delco’s labs helped create high speed diesel engines, high compression gas engines, home refrigeration, fast drying paints, dehumidifiers, Ethyl gas (Tetraethyllead), Freon refrigerant, vehicle ventilation and air conditioning. They founded Dayton Metal Products Company in 1914 and made munitions for the Bolshevik Revolution (3rd paragraph of page 6 of THIS link); The Day Fan Electric Company was founded in 1926, and produced radios and radio components in a building that once made munitions for the Russian government (3rd paragraph of page 10 in THIS link and "The Bullet Works" paragraph in THIS link); Delco Products Division was founded in 1936, and later became Delco Break; Delco-Frigidaire Conditioning Corporation was also founded in 1936 (Frigidaire was originally founded in 1919), and Kettering developed Freon to replace the corrosive (and toxic) sulfur dioxide for refrigeration; Delco Moraine Division produced engine bearings, transmission parts, powder metal parts, brake drums, power brake boosters, master cylinders, and a complete line of electric motors.
Delco’s impact on our daily lives is more obvious in the automotive industry. Beyond that, so many things from our electronics to the refrigerators in our kitchens comes from the ingenuity of 2 guys from Ohio. The company's legacy is embedded in the evolution of automotive technology, but the principles and technologies developed by Delco Labs had a ripple effects contributed to so many aspects of our everyday lives. No matter where we are or what we’re doing, we’re probably working with a little love from Dayton, Ohio.