The Strange and Savage Life of Thomas Midgley Jr

Photograph of Thomas Midgley Jr, inventor of leaded gasoline and freon.

Do you recognize this man’s face? How about his name? Some of you may, but I suspect the majority of you probably do not. I feel that you should know his name because a very strong argument can be made that this man has single-handedly been responsible for more deaths than any other person in modern history, and if that is not enough, single-handedly caused more harm to our planet’s environment than any other person in history, modern or otherwise. And what really makes his story strange and savage is that I do not believe this man was truly evil. He may have been strongly misguided, possibly unlucky, and perhaps the single greatest embodiment of the law of unintended consequences.

Thomas Midgley Jr was born on May 18, 1889 in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. He grew up in Ohio, and like his father, his ambition was to become an inventor. To this end he earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University in 1911. His first job out of university was with a relatively young upstart called General Motors. At the time, General Motors was giving the Ford Motor Company a strong run for their money in the field of automotive engineering.

Midgley’s boss, inventor and engineer Charles Kettering, had invented the electric starter motor (doing away with the practice of hand-cranking to start automobile engines) and he set Midgley to find a solution to what was then seen as the most pressing problem in automobiles: engine knocking. Simplified, knocking occurs when the air/fuel mixture in an engine cylinder does not combust evenly, leading to reduced power, reduced fuel efficiency, and as the name suggests, an audible ‘knocking’ caused by the cylinders firing out of ideal order which damages the engine over the long term.

Midgley was nothing if not a clever fellow, and he very soon discovered that adding ethyl alcohol (ethanol) to gasoline caused the fuel/air mixture to combust evenly and eliminate knocking. The problem with Midgley’s discovery, as General Motors saw it, was that any hillbilly with a field of grain and a still could create ethyl alcohol, and as a naturally occurring chemical ethanol could not be patented, and therefore monetized.

Kettering sent Midgley back to the drawing board to find another solution that GM could profit from. Thus, with the periodic table of elements on the wall to guide him, Midgley started by adding iodine to gasoline, and finding it ineffective, systematically worked his way through the elements until arriving at another fuel additive that mitigated engine knocking:

Lead. Or more specifically, the organolead compound, tetraethyllead.

Now: even at this time Midgley, GM, and everyone else knew that lead was harmful to humans. So GM called their new additive ‘Ethyl’, and removed all mention of lead from the promotional and marketing material. GM touted the additive as a cheaper and more efficient alternative to ethanol, and for his efforts Midgley won the 1923 Nichols Medal, a prize given by the American Chemical Society.

The following year, perhaps pressured by GM, Midgley took part in a grotesque media event to demonstrate the ‘safety’ of their additive. He poured tetraethyllead into his hands and rubbed them together, and then took long drafts of the vapour. Unsurprisingly, he contracted lead poisoning, and had to take almost a year off work to convalesce.

Quickly GM and Standard Oil started working together and they created the Ethyl Corporation, and built a refinery to synthesize tetraethyllead. There are many reports of the refinery’s employees becoming sick, going insane, and straight up falling dead from the poisonous fumes produced there. No matter, it made many people enormously wealthy.

It took until 1973 for leaded fuel to even begin to get phased out of common use, and it was not completely banned from on-road vehicles until 1993 in Canada, 1996 in the US, and 2000 in Great Britain. In 1985 the EPA released a report that stated 5,000 americans died every year from lead poisoning, the majority from inhaling exhaust from leaded gasoline. In 1988 the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry made a report to US Congress, and stated that an estimated 68 million children had toxic levels of lead in their bodies between 1927 and 1987. Because the lead was introduced into the environment as air pollution from vehicle exhaust, the worst effects were seen in large cities where there is more automobile traffic. To this day there are sociologists and criminologists that posit the american big city ‘crime waves’ of the 1970s and 1980s were, at least in part, caused by toxic lead poisoning in children who grew up in the leaded fuel heydays of the 1950s and 1960s, playing in the streets, and inhaling exhaust day after day.

All this was long after Thomas Midgley’s time though, and he soon returned to GM to invent more new and wonderful things.

In the 1930s, still under the supervision of his boss and mentor Kettering, Midgley went to work for Frigidaire, a subsidiary of GM. In the decade previous ‘electric iceboxes’ had come into common use. The problem was that harmful chemicals such as sulphur dioxide, propane, and ammonia were used as the chemical refrigerants. There were many instances of these chemicals leaking and even some of these chemicals causing explosions. Kettering tasked Midgley with finding a non-toxic, non-flammable chemical to use in fridges and air conditioners.

Before long he had found it. Midgley synthesized dichlorodifluoromethane, a chlorofluorocarbon that the Du Pont chemical company (majority owner of GM until 1957) marketed as ‘Freon’. Do you see where this is going? Freon was soon used in almost all refrigerators and air conditioners, and it was widely used as a propellant in aerosol cans and even asthma inhalers.

Again, Midgley was lauded by his peers and industry. Again, he won medals, and received patents, and again, he made lots and lots of money for himself and the companies he worked for. Again, it was not until long after his death that the adverse effects of his invention became widely known and understood. It was not until the late 1970s and early 1980s that scientists discovered that Freon and other CFCs break down ozone in the upper atmosphere which allows harmful UVB wavelengths of ultraviolet light to enter and trap harmful greenhouse gases, which have had a significant effect on global warming and climate change.

Some may call it karma, and some may call it shit luck, but by 1940 Thomas Midgley had contracted polio and lost the use of both his legs. Despite being mostly bedridden, Midgley was an inventor, and being an inventor he used his time to design and construct an elaborate system of pulleys, straps, and ropes which allowed him to move easily from his bed to wheelchair and back. In what can only be described as a master stroke of fate, on November 2, 1944, still decades before the true implications of his life’s work became widely known, Midgley got tangled and caught up in his final invention, and died of strangulation trying to get out of bed.


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