Thomas Midgley’s One Man Rampage Against The Environment

By Dominic Goland on Friday, July 19, 2013
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“The essential thing necessary to safely handle [tetraethyl lead] was careful discipline of our men. . . [Tetraethyl lead] becomes dangerous due to carelessness of the men in handling it.” —Thomas Midgley

In a Nutshell

Thomas Midgley was an American inventor who’s two main inventions were so toxic to the environment that they were banned virtually worldwide and left a big impact on the ozone layer, his inventions were: chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Tetra Ethyl Lead (leaded petrol).

The Whole Bushel

Thomas Midgley was born in 1889 in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania and grew up in Columbus, Ohio. He was determined to follow in his fathers footsteps who was also an inventor, Midgley graduated from Cornell University in 1911 with a degree in mechanical engineering.
Midgley then went on to work for the general motors company, it was here where he tried to solve the problem of “knocking” (Knocking occurs when fuel burns too early in the internal combustion cycle and leads to noise and engine damage) in car engine’s and discovered that iodine and kerosene mixed together reduced it, but it didn’t reduce it enough so he tried every element in the periodic table until he discovered something that worked perfectly, and in 1921 this led to his invention of Leaded Petrol, even though at the time of discovery the dangerous of Tetra Ethyl Lead it still went on to be used for seventy years.

Aside from the environmental dangerous of lead it can also lead to blindness, insomnia, kidney failure, hearing loss, cancer, palsies and convulsions if over exposed, and slight exposure leads to hallucinations which turn to a coma and death.

He then turned to sulfur dioxide and ammonia which was in refrigerators and were dangerous if they leaked. So again GM got him to look for an alternative that should be stable, non-flammable, non-corrosive and safe to breathe. So he came up with a fusion of chlorine, fluorine and carbon and called it freon (or dichlorodifluoromethane which is a type of chlorofluorocarbons, but CFC is the most pronounceable). Freon became a hit and as well as being used in refrigerators it was also used in deodorant sprays.

Unlike Tetra Ethyl Lead the full effects of CFCs were not known until 50 years after its invention in 1930 when we saw the earths atmosphere in the stratosphere. But CFCs are incredibly destructive: A single kilogram of CFCs can destroy 70,000 kilograms of atmospheric ozone, on average they stay in the atmosphere for a century, and it’s ten thousand times more efficient at worsening the greenhouse effect per molecule than carbon dioxide which isn’t good to begin with.

His last invention was probably his most destructive (but to himself this time). The backround to his curtain call was his polio which left him crippled, so he made a system of motorized pulleys to help him in and out of bed, and in 1944 he became entangled in the pulley system and was strangled to death.

So ironically enough he was probably the first to realize the effects of his inventions.

Show Me The Proof

Psychedelic Porcupine: Thomas Midgley Jr, the World’s Most Destructive Man
Invent.org: Thomas Midgley, Jr.
QI: Environmental Damage