Thomas Midgley Jr.: The One-Man Environmental Disaster

Mar 8, 2022 1 comments

The unnatural warming of the Earth’s atmosphere in the past century or two can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution when humans began burning copious amount of fossil fuel releasing a staggering amount of carbon dioxide into the air. But a small part of the climate catastrophe can also be traced back to two dangerous inventions—leaded gasoline and chlorofluorocarbons, both created by the same man, Thomas Midgley Jr.

Photo: Bronwyn8/Getty Images

Midgley was born in 1889 in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in mechanical engineering, he worked in Dayton, Ohio, as a draftsman and designer at the National Cash Register Company and then at his father’s automobile tire factory. In 1916, Midgley began working at General Motors where he pioneered in the study of internal combustion engine and the problem of engine knock that reduced the power and efficiency of the engine and led to breakdowns. Midgley quickly found that engine knock in gasoline engines was caused not by the ignition system but by the fuel mixture, which did not burn evenly. At that time, engineer and inventor Charles Kettering at Dayton Research Laboratories, a subsidiary of General Motors, was marketing a small kerosene engine to drive home-lighting systems on farms. But the engine knocked horribly. So Kettering asked the 27-year-old Thomas Midgley to find a petrol additive that would make car engines run more smoothly.

Thomas Midgley Jr.

Midgley began testing hundreds of different substances and eventually discovered that addition of small amount of ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, to gasoline reduced knocking significantly. However, there was a problem. The production of ethanol could not be patented and therefore their sale could not generate much profit. Ethanol could also be easily produced from grains, and more and more people in America were doing it because of the Prohibition. Furthermore, ethanol itself was fuel and competing with oil companies was not with the best interest of General Motors as it risked the beneficial relationship the fledgling automaker shared with the oil companies.

So General Motors urged Midgley to find another gasoline additive, that was inexpensive and which could make money for the company. Once again, Midgley began working systematically through the periodic table and within a few months, in December 1921, discovered that tetraethyl lead (TEL) worked equally well. But lead was a poison whose toxicity was well documented. As early as 2nd century, the Greek botanist Nicander described the colic and paralysis seen in lead-poisoned people. Dioscorides, a Greek physician who lived in the 1st century AD, wrote that lead makes the mind “give way”. Julius Caesar's engineer, Vitruvius commented that lead pipes used throughout the Roman Empire to convey water was unhealthy and made people sick. He noted that lead fumes “rob the limbs of the virtues of the blood”. Gout, one symptom of lead poisoning, was common in affluent Rome. One scholar even goes as far as to state that the Roman civilization collapsed as a result of lead poisoning. While the idea has been refuted, the fact stands that Romans consumed great quantities of lead from contaminated water and by using lead cookware. People from the 20th century fared no better. Until very recently, lead was used to seal the cans food came in, water was stored in lead-lined tanks, lead arsenate was sprayed onto fruit as a pesticide, and even toothpaste came in lead tubes.

Symptoms of lead poisoning. Image credit: Wikimedia

Lead is a neurotoxin that accumulates in soft tissues and bones. If you get too much of it, you can irreparably damage the central nervous system and the brain. Lead interferes with the function of biological enzymes, causing neurological disorders, such as brain damage and behavioral problems. Lead also affects general health, cardiovascular, and renal systems.

General Motors was well aware of the dangers of lead, but at the same time they were eager to explore the metal’s potential to prevent engine knock. Leaded gasoline was portrayed as a breakthrough, and in December 1922 Midgley was awarded the prestigious William H. Nichols Medal from the New York section of the American Chemical Society. In 1923 the three of America’s largest corporations, General Motors, Du Pont, and Standard Oil of New Jersey, formed a joint enterprise called the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation and began manufacturing and distributing tetraethyl lead. They called their additive simply “ethyl”, dropping “lead” from the name to make it sound more benign.

An advertisement for Ethyl.

Leaded gasoline was introduced on the market in February 1923, and it was well-loved by motorists for the extra boost the gasoline gave. Leaded gasoline allowed the use of higher compression ratios for greater efficiency and peak power. Particularly in aviation, leaded gasoline allowed companies to produce supercharged engines such as the Rolls-Royce Merlin and Griffon. However, problems began to start at Ethyl Corp’s manufacturing plant almost immediately. Within the first year of its operation, the company’s plants were plagued by cases of lead poisoning, hallucinations, insanity, and even the deaths. The company tried to hush the news, but at times it became impossible. William Kovarik reported in an article:

Several workers had to be subdued and put into straightjackets. They were black and blue from uncontrolled muscle spasms. They exhibited paranoid and delusional behavior such as cringing from phantoms or snatching at imaginary winged insects. The afflicted workers could be suddenly violent or suicidal. They also had blue lines across their gums, a typical indicator of lead poisoning, but the behavioral symptoms were unlike any presented in previous lead-poisoning cases.

When a news reporter reached out to Standard Oil for comments, one refinery supervisor famously said: “These men probably went insane because they worked too hard.”

To allay rumors about this new chemical, Midgley himself appeared before a press conference in 1924, where he poured TEL over his hands, placed a bottle of the chemical under his nose, and inhaled its fumes for 60 seconds, declaring that he would suffer no ill effects from doing this every day, and blamed the stricken workers for not following safety procedures. Despite his demonstration, Midgley knew only too well the perils of lead poisoning, for he himself had been made seriously ill from overexposure a few months earlier.

A gasoline station selling Ethyl-mixed gasoline.

Midgley also lied about the unavailability of a substitute when he told an American Chemical Society meeting in April 1925:

So far as science knows at the present time, tetraethyl lead is the only material available which can bring about these [anti-knock] results, which are of vital importance to the continued economical use by the general public of all automotive equipment.

His statement carefully avoided any mention of ethanol as an effective, clean-burning anti-knock additive.

Midgley’s next major invention was equally disastrous. General Motors’ refrigerators at that time were becoming a popular household appliance in the twenties. But these early refrigeration units used nasty chemicals like sulfur dioxide and ammonia, which leaked and caused eye and skin irritation. Others were highly toxic if inhaled, and were also flammable. General Motors needed something safer, and once again they turned to Charles Kettering who assembled a team that included Midgley to develop such a compound. It is said that it took Midgley only three days to invent dichlorodifluoromethane, the very first of the chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), sold under the brand name Freon-12. Dichlorodifluoromethane was highly volatile (a requirement for a refrigerant) and also chemically inert. Midgley flamboyantly demonstrated all these properties by inhaling a breath of the gas and using it to blow out a candle. Soon CFCs appeared in a dozen applications including air conditioners, aerosol spray cans and in asthma inhalers. Millions of these units got sold, and Midgley added another feather to his cap—the Perkin Medal in 1937.

Image credit:

It took nearly half a century to discover that CFCs were poking holes through the Earth’s ozone layer, which wasn’t a very good thing. Besides, CFCs are greenhouse gases too, and ten thousand times more potent than carbon dioxide. Bill Bryson, in A short history of nearly everything, called it “the worst invention of the twentieth century”. Of course, Midgley did not know any of these, for he died long before CFC’s destructive power came to light. His death itself was a curiosity. After contracting polio at the age of 51, Midgley became crippled and bedridden. He devised an elaborate system of ropes and motorized pulleys that automatically raised or turned him in bed. In 1944, he became entangled in the cords as the machine went into action and was strangled.

CFC was formally banned after 1987 when diplomats in Montreal forged a treaty, the Montreal Protocol, which called for drastic reductions in the production of CFCs. Many countries agreed to completely eliminate CFCs by the year 2000. Tetraethyl lead was also phased out by the early 2000s by most countries. The last country to sell leaded gasoline is Algeria, which halted sale only very recently in July 2021.

# Thomas Midgley, The Most Harmful Inventor in History, Openmind BBVA
# William Kovarik, Ethyl-leaded Gasoline: How a Classic Occupational Disease Became an International Public Health Disaster. PDF


  1. That's what's known as karma. I think he was reincarnated as a gnat.Several thousand times.


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