DÉjà Vu

At his office at Dayton Engineering Laboratories (Delco), which he founded in 1909, Charles Kettering would instruct his secretary to inform unwanted visitors that he was dead.

Such behavior wasn't uncharacteristic for the eccentric businessman and industrial inventor. Shortly after Delco was acquired by General Motors, in 1919, Kettering was disgusted when a group of engineers--who thought they could calculate the point at which improvement in any procedure became impossible--told him that painting a car, which at the time took up to 37 days, could be cut to less than a month. "An hour would be more like it," Kettering shot back.

Kettering soon developed his own quick-drying paint. But the engineers still insisted that a one-hour paint job was impossible. So Kettering invited one skeptic to lunch. The two finished their meal and headed out to the GM parking lot. Confused and embarrassed, the guest admitted that he couldn't find his automobile. "Isn't that yours?" asked Kettering, motioning to a nearby car. "It looks like mine," the man replied, "but my car isn't that color." Said Kettering, "Now it is." -- Jerry Useem

CHARLES KETTERING: 1876­1958; founder, Delco, 1909; research chief, General Motors, 1920­1947