Extraordinary people: Thomas Midgley Jr.

Thomas Midgley Jr.

Today, I want to introduce you to this extraordinary gentleman.

Mr. Thomas Midgley Jr., an american engineer born on May 18, 1889, in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, is considered one of the most harmful persons who lived on this planet. He contributed to some of the worst environmental problems the world faces today.

Working at General Motors, Midgley discovered that the addition of Tetraethyllead to gasoline prevented knocking in combustion engines. Unopposed by the fact that it is an extremely poisonous substance due to its lead content, General Motors began to market it as a fuel additive, even though there were harmless and cheap alternatives such as Ethanol (that’s plain alcohol).

According to Wikipedia, in 1923, after his discovery, Midgley took a long vacation in MiamiFlorida, to cure himself of lead poisoning. Afterwards, he was tasked with supervising the setup of the TEL production plant.

Quoted from Wikipedia:

In April 1923, General Motors created the General Motors Chemical Company (GMCC) to supervise the production of TEL by the DuPont company. […] However, after two deaths and several cases of lead poisoning at the TEL prototype plant in Dayton, Ohio, the staff at Dayton was said in 1924 to be “depressed to the point of considering giving up the whole tetraethyl lead program”.[6] Over the course of the next year, eight more people died at DuPont’s plant in Deepwater, New Jersey.[9]

But that was no reason for them to give up:

Ethyl – The “lead” was dropped from the name for marketing reasons.

In 1924, unsatisfied with the speed of DuPont’s TEL production using the “bromide process”, General Motors and the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (now known as ExxonMobil) created the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation to produce and market TEL. Ethyl Corporation built a new chemical plant using a high-temperature ethyl chloride process at the Bayway Refinery in New Jersey.[9] However, within the first two months of its operation, the new plant was plagued by more cases of lead poisoning, hallucinations, insanity, and five deaths.

Yet, still convinced of his invention’s feasibility:

On October 30, 1924, Midgley participated in a press conference to demonstrate the apparent safety of TEL, in which he poured TEL over his hands, placed a bottle of the chemical under his nose, and inhaled its vapor for 60 seconds, declaring that he could do this every day without succumbing to any problems.[7][10] […] Midgley would later have to take leave of absence from work after being diagnosed with lead poisoning.[11]

For the next 60 years, lead was spread all around the world causing all sorts of health problems: nerve damage, reduced IQ levels and aggression. Read about lead poisoning on Wikipedia if you like. It was found that the use of leaded gasoline had a statistically significant effect on violent crime rates – the violent crime curve virtually tracks the lead exposure curve with a 22 year lag.

But that was not the conclusion of Mr. Midgley’s life’s work.

Mr. Midgley, still employed at General Motors, went on to invent a new refrigerant for their air conditioning and refrigeration systems. Mr. Midgley Jr. and his team came up with Dichlorodifluoromethane, which in the U.S. became known as Freon, and belongs to the group of Chlorofluorocarbons a.k.a. CFCs.

That’s right, the stuff which went on to destroy destroy our ozone layer.

While chemically stable and thus non-toxic to humans and animals, it turned out that this stuff, due to its stability, accumulates in the upper layers of our atmosphere.

Ozone hole

There, it does two bad things: first, it acts as a greenhouse gas, absorbing heat radiated from earth and thus preventing it from leaving. Second, it acts as a catalyst for the conversion of ozone into oxygen. Ozone shields us from dangerous UV-B radiation.

So, Mr. Thomas Midgley Jr. not only caused the lead poisoning of mankind, he also helped to cause the Ozone Hole.

Interestingly, in the end, one of the inventors own contraptions caused his death (quote Wikipedia):

In 1940, at the age of 51, Midgley contracted poliomyelitis, which left him severely disabled. He devised an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys to help others lift him from bed. In 1944, he was entangled in the device and died of strangulation.

Tetraethyllead was largely banned from industrialized countries by the 2000s (notably, it still used today in aviation fuels, known as  Avgas). CFCs became closely regulated in the 1970s and 1980s.

Sources: Wikipedia, interestingengineering.com, both November 2018