30 April 2009
You probably have never heard of Thomas Midgley, but believe me he has impacted your life.
He was a graduate of Cornell University and worked as an industrial chemist for his entire career. His first big invention was to make an additive for gasoline that almost completely eliminated knocking in car engines. The additive was made of tetra ethyl lead. If you are my age, or older, you can remember pulling into a service station and being asked by the attendant “Do you want regular or ethyl?” Now you know where that comes from.
The Ethyl corporation was formed to make millions of dollars of of this product and they did. Unfortunately, they ran into a small problem. Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin. Their workers suffered all kinds of health affects, up to and including death. This was only a minor inconvenience however, as there was lots of money to be made.
Bill Bryson, in his book “A Short History of Nearly Everything” has a fascinating chapter devoted to Midgley and the Ethyl Corporation. Perhaps most interesting is how they conspired, very successfully, to ruin the career of the scientist who figured out that lead produced by the Ethyl corporation was in everything by the 1950’s. It would not be banned in gasoline until the 1970’s! Supposedly the company denied that lead is dangerous to humans into the 1970’s. They may still deny it!
If you were born in the 1900’s, you have over 600 times the lead concentration in your body, than someone who died before World War One!
The Ethyl corporation still exists, and they still make the product. The headquarters are in Richmond Va. They just sell it to other countries, and it’ s still put in some fuel used in the USA. I did a little research on Wikipedia and found out that the company is now a subsidiary?? of NewMarket corp. Eythyl Corp. still exists. You can see their web site here. Nothing about Thomas Midgley, or the banning of lead gasoline on the site, that I can see.
Midgley didn’t stop there. Next he came up with a way to get rid of the dangerous chemicals used in early air conditioning systems. So he invented a product called dichlorodifluoromethane. Yea, it’s hard to pronounce, so everyone just called it CFC. Yup, Midgley invented CFC’s! He had no idea of course that they would not only work well as a refrigerant, but they were also incredibly effective at destroying Ozone. We are lucky though.
If Midgley had used Bromine instead of Chlorine, the resulting product would have destroyed the Ozone layer very rapidly, and the world would have been in even deeper trouble than it is now. Perhaps lifeless!
There is more to Midgley’s story. He contracted Polio, and designed a contraption to get him out of bed. It had the same hidden dangers of the rest of his inventions. He got caught in it and was strangled. As the late Paul Harvey would have said,
“and now you know….. The Rest of The Story!”
Sources: A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING- Bill Bryson (Perhaps the best popular Science book ever written)
Doctor Karl- ABC Australia (Heard on BBC Radio 5 Live Thursday mornings)
Wikipedia and I grabbed the Midgley pic from the Nerdy Science Blog-which has a great post about Midgley as well.
Ozone hole pic from NASA and Ozone hole info from various Climate books I have. Email if your interested in these.