The Genial Scientist Who Almost Destroyed the Planet

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7.jpgIn 1947, legendary American inventor Charles F. Kettering paid tribute to his friend and colleague, Thomas Midgley, who had recently passed away:

"Through experience, the layman will... testify his indebtedness to one who has contributed so greatly to more pleasant and efficient living. He has made science a liberator, and we rejoice with him in the satisfactions that must be his in seeing the fruits of his labor. Posterity will acknowledge their permanent value."
Decades later, Midgley's two foremost inventions, leaded gasoline and chlorofluorocarbons, would be globally banned after wreaking havoc on both public health and the world environment.

Thomas Midgley, Jr. was born on May 18, 1889 in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, a quiet, comely river town 31 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. A curious, athletic, and affable lad, Midgley flourished under the tutelage of his inventor father. He would later attend Cornell University, where he received a degree in mechanical engineering. It was here that Midgley took to carrying a periodic table with him at all times, a tool that would prove much more useful to him than a mechanic's wrench. 

In the late 1910's, now working as a chemist at Dayton Research Laboratories, a subsidiary of General Motors, Midgley tackled the issue of "engine knocking," a problem that plagued old automotives. Fuel would ignite too rapidly, and outside the areas of normal combustion in the engine. This would prompt a temporary loss of power, marked by a disconcerting "pinging" sound.

Midgley discovered that adding a compound called tetraethyllead to fuel could greatly boost its octane rating, an indication of how much compression fuel can withstand before detonating. The additive effectively eliminated the problem of engine knocking, an accomplishment that garnered him the prestigious Nichols Medal from the American Chemical Society. But it simultaneously introduced a new problem: lead.

At the time, lead was known to be dangerous, as evidenced by worker deaths in the chemical plants manufacturing tetraethyllead, but its disastrous scope was not yet realized. Decades later, it would be.

In the early 1930's, Midgley sought to create a new, innocuous refrigerant for air conditioners and refrigerators. At the time, those machines used toxic and flammable compounds like ammonia, chloromethane, propane, and sulfur dioxide. Consulting his trusty periodic table, Midgley identified a new compound, dichlorodifluoromethane -- more commonly known as freon -- in just a matter of days. It caught on in a similarly hasty fashion. Apparently safe, non-flammable, and non-toxic, the gas appeared in almost all refrigerators within only a few years. It also found its way into aerosol deodorants and pretty much any sort of consumer spray device.

For his accomplishments, all achieved before age forty, Midgley was awarded the Priestly Medal, the American Chemical Society's most distinguished honor, in 1941. Three years later, he would be elected the society's president, but died soon after assuming the position. Before passing, Midgley would tell his friends how glad he was that his inventions had created livelihoods for so many workers, and that everyday citizens could reap the life-improving benefits.

Now, of course, we know that both of Midgley's key inventions were disastrous for the planet and human health. Lead is highly poisonous, and putting it in our motor vehicles' fuel basically weaponized it. In 1985, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that as many as 5,000 Americans died each year from lead-related heart disease before leaded gasoline began to be phased out in the mid-1970s. And in the time that lead infected our cars, 68 million children received dangerous exposures.

EthylCorporationSign.jpgWhat about freon? Well, it was the first chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) ever invented. Scientists were startled in 1985 to discover a large hole in Earth's protective ozone layer -- which shields us from damaging ultraviolet light -- over Antarctica. They quickly found out that CFCs like freon were the culprits. The discovery catalyzed a major international agreement in 1988, where over 180 countries agreed to substantially reduce or phase out entirely the production of CFCs.

Somewhat ironically, Midgley's own death paralleled the fate of his creations. Paralyzed by polio in his final years, he devised a harness that would help him move from his bed to his wheelchair, a seemingly safe and useful idea. But it was this harness that strangled him in a tragic accident (though some now believe he committed suicide). Similarly, CFCs and leaded gasoline were intended as tools to improve lives, but they did just the opposite.

(Image: 1. via ACS 2. Plazak via Wikimedia Commons)

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