The man who “has had more impact on the atmosphere than any other organism in the history of the Earth”

The inventions of Thomas Midgley Jr. have terribly affected the lives of many and left a lasting effect on the planet.

On the morning of November 2, 1944, Carrie May Reynolds found her husband dead in her bed. Although there were suspicions of suicide, he was officially the victim of his own invention.

Invalid from polio, he was strangled by a harness he had devised to move between the bed and the wheelchair without assistance.

An unfortunate death for a man who, as Bill Bryson, author of “A Short History of Almost Everything,” noted, possessed “an instinct for the unfortunate that was almost unheard of.”

That’s because the contraption that ended his life was not his only creation that had dire consequences .

So much so that Time magazine – which during World War II described him, rightly at the time, as “the great and famous Thomas Midgley Jr. ” – mentioned him again in 2010 but in the context of the list of the 50 worst inventions of the history.

And that’s a low-key criticism, compared to the ones you come across today if you explore his legacy.

The words “the man who has had more impact on the atmosphere than any other organism in the history of the Earth” were those used by the environmental historian JR McNeill to refer to him.

But you also find his story under titles such as “the man who wanted to kill humanity twice” or “the great scientist who almost destroyed the world.”

That was what he did?

It was not always like this.

In life, Midgley received prestigious awards and positions, particularly in the field of chemistry, despite the fact that he was a mechanical engineer whose only formal instruction in that field was two inspection courses.

One of them was the Willard Gibbs Prize (in 1942), the objective of which is to “ publicly recognize eminent chemists who, through years of application and devotion, have contributed to the world developments that allow anyone to live more comfortably and better understand the world. “.

To be fair, the inventions for which he is bitterly remembered today did indeed make our lives more comfortable and, over time, allowed us to better understand the world… but at what cost!

Of the “top four accomplishments in which Midgley had a dominant share ,” praised in his obituary in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS), two would be banned worldwide after wreaking havoc on both public health and health. environment.


Gasoline pump outside the Rail Haven Motel in Springfield, Missouri
The gas pump outside the Rail Haven Motel in Springfield, which is recognized as the birthplace of the legendary Route 66, serves as a monument to the tremendous mistake.

The first of the discoveries that we would come to deplore was the solution to a phenomenon known as engine detonation, which was characterized by annoying noises, overheating, jerky movements and slow response.

It took Midgley and his team years to solve the problem.

” There was nothing in the books, so with home-made theories and cut-and-test methods, they added thousands of things to the gasoline and observed its effects, ” said Charles F. Kettering, who as head of research at General Motors was the Midgley chief .

For years this continued, day and night (…). Meals were forgotten, sleep was lost and the researchers’ happy families were no longer ‘happy ‘, ”added the respected inventor, engineer, entrepreneur.

Finally, in 1921, they found the antiknock that seemed ideal: tetraethyl lead, abbreviated TEL .

Doesn’t it ring a bell?

Perhaps because when tetraethyl lead gasoline was marketed in 1923, its name was stripped of traces of lead, abbreviating it to “ethyl” or “ethyl” .

"Ethyl" sign
The name chosen was lead free.

It was all a success.

The serious thing is that lead is a deadly poison.

Once inside the body, it interferes with the propagation of signals through the central nervous system and infiltrates enzymes, altering their function in the processing of the nutritive elements zinc, iron, and calcium.

It causes, among other things, high blood pressure, kidney problems, fetal abnormalities and brain damage. And it especially affects children .


After his success with the antiknock, Kettering proposed to Midgley that he tackle another technological problem of the time: the search for a better coolant.

Back then, refrigerants were toxic, highly flammable, and even explosive . The smallest leak could cause serious illness, injury, or even death.

This time, it only took three days to identify the perfect alternative: chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, a combination of fluorine, carbon, and chlorine.

When circulating in refrigerators or air conditioners, the fluid changed rapidly from gas to liquid and vice versa, absorbing and releasing large amounts of heat in the process.

Woman in front of fridge
Keeping cold before CFCs was a complicated and dangerous business.

And, unlike existing options, CFCs seemed like a safe alternative.

So much so that, as Kettering recounted, when Migley first publicly presented the research, “it demonstrated its non-toxic and non-flammable properties in just one breath .”

His histrionic demonstration consisted of inhaling ” the vapor of one of the compounds and then gently exhaling it to extinguish a candle that burned before him .”

They called them “freon” and began to mass-manufacture them, leading to the proliferation of refrigerators and air conditioning in homes, offices, and cars.

Also, during World War II, the military discovered that freon was an ideal vehicle for spreading insecticides in soldiers’ barracks. That led to them, after the war, being widely used in sprays of all kinds, from paints to deodorants.

The world reacted

In June 1974, an article appeared in the journal Nature entitled “Stratospheric Sink for Chlorofluoromethanes: Chlorine Atom Catalyzed Ozone Depletion,” written by Mario J. Molina and FS Rowland of the University of California, Irvine.

They explained that when CFC atoms entering the upper stratosphere, decomposed and destroyed the protective shield of ozone T ierra , which absorbs ultraviolet radiation.

In the following years, scientists continued to investigate and revealed that if we continued to use CFCs, the consequence would be death on a massive scale.

And they discovered a large hole in the Earth’s ozone layer, over Antarctica.

The discovery catalyzed a major international agreement in 1988, in which more than 180 countries agreed to substantially reduce or completely eliminate CFC production.

The law of unforeseen consequences?

Mmm… yes… and no.

In the case of freon, there was no way that neither Midgley nor the rest of the scientific community suspected what would happen in the upper stratosphere. In the 1930s, no one knew what the ozone layer was or what it was for, much less that CFCs, harmless at sea level, were a danger at that point.

But the case of the gasoline additive is very different.

It was no secret to anyone that lead was harmful to health ; it had been a known fact for centuries.

And from the beginning several voices of alarm were raised from the scientific community, including that of Alice Hamilton, the largest US expert on the subject, who warned: “ Where there is lead sooner or later there will be a case of poisoning, even under the strictest supervision . “

Those cases did not take long to appear.

In February 1923, when ethyl gasoline went on sale, Midgley himself was absent from work, because the lead fumes had made him sick.

Between that year and 1925, at least 17 workers died and 150 became ill from lead poisoning during the leaded gasoline production process.

In the three companies involved in adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline, Standard Oil, General Motors and Du Pont, the problem was so well known that one of the laboratories was known as ” the crazy gas building” and another, “the house of the butterflies ” , because the employees hallucinated and saw insects.

However, both the management of those firms and Midgley himself insisted that there was no risk.

“I’m not risking anything bad happening to me,” declared the inventor of the additive as he breathed in the vapors and washed his hands with the product. “I would not be risking even if I did it daily,” he said.

In 1925, the US Public Health Service agreed with them.

With the green light to put lead in fuel, the vehicles became weapons .

By the 1970s, TEL was used in about 80 to 90% of the world’s gasoline.

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