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Thomas Midgley

March 1, 2005

A public radio commentary

Two of the greatest environmental threats of the twentieth century - leaded gas and freon - were the work of a single man named Thomas Midgley. Because of these two inventions, a historian described Midgley as having "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth history."

In 1921 Thomas Midgley worked as an engineer in the General Motors research labs. His project was to get rid of engine knock - that's when the fuel doesn't burn evenly and makes the motor rattle. Engine knock wasted fuel, something scarce at the time.

Midgley knew the solution was some kind of additive to the fuel. So, he went on what he called a "scientific fox hunt." It was a method he developed as a young man. In school, he and a teammate decided to find out what would make a spitball curve the best. They carefully tested substances, until they came across slippery-elm bark. Midgley used a similar process to find his fuel additive. He systematically tested compounds until he hit upon tetraethyl lead.

This compound met his goal of increasing fuel conservation: With his lead additive, two gallons would go as far as three gallons without an additive. In fact, despised as lead gas is today, over the twenty-five years we used it, leaded gas saved about a billion barrels of oil.

Of course, we now know the toxic effects of putting lead into the environment.

After this success, Midgley worked on improving refrigerators and air conditioners. At the time, a refrigerator was a dangerous thing because it used toxic, flammable chemicals. Midgley, using the same "scientific fox hunt" as before, found a replacement for these nasty chemicals: CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, what we now call "freons."

Today, it strikes us as the most toxic thing in the world. Yet its lack of toxicity and flammability is what attracted Midgley to it. To demonstrate its safety, he once took a mouthful of freon and blew it at a candle. It extinguished the flame showing that freon was neither poisonous nor flammable.

Of course, we learned in the 1970s that freon thins the ozone layer, the essential sun screen that lets life on earth thrive.

There is great irony in Midgley's career: He set out to improve our world, and yet as that historian said he "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth history."

This irony was reflected in his own demise. In 1940 he contracted polio. He designed a system of ropes and pulleys to help him in and out of bed. One day he became entangled in this network of ropes, and was strangled by his own ingenuity.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises