Two catastrophic inventions #history

Thomas J Midgley Jr has a unique place in the history of inventions – two of his wreaked havoc on the world!

Thomas_Midgley Historian J R McNeil said that Midgley had a greater impact on the environment that any other single organism in world history.’Midgley was a chemist and the opprobrium is because of two of his inventions – leaded petrol and CFCs.
LeadedPetrol Midgley worked for a division of General Motors under Charles F Kettering (who invented the electric cash register [see more in The PC Pioneers] and the electric car starter motor). He was seeking a material that when added to the air-petrol mix in an internal combustion engine would stop ‘knocking’.This effect was due to some of the fuel not being used up by the spark plug and then exploding under pressure. He found that tetraethyl lead (TEL) was the most appropriate additive in 1921.His invention reduced the number of automotive accidents, but perhaps they should have been tipped off when ten people died across the first two years working with the TEL during manufacture.Midgley held a press conference where he washed his hands in the TEL and breatherd it in deeply to assure the public that there was no problem.

It took until the 1970s for legislation to withdraw the material for its harmful exhaust gases.

CFCs Promoted to a VP in the GM Chemical Company he proved an ineffective manager so, sadly as it turned out, he returned to research. He looked for an alternative to the toxic materials being used in domestic refrigerators – ammonia, butane, methyl chloride and sulphur dioxide.He came up with dichlorodifluoromethane, the first type of chlorofluorocarbon or CFC. In 1930 Midgley set up a public demonstration where he breathed in the CFC and blew out a candle – to show it was neither toxic nor flammable.GM and Dupont branded it as Freon and rushed it in to production; the GM subsidiary Frigidaire is said to have been saved from a financial crash by its use. Midgley received the Priestley Medal in 1941 and became the president of the American Chemical Society.

It took some years for the accumulation of CFCs in the atmosphere from aerosols and fridges to start to destroy the ozone layer.


Polio Midgley became crippled by polio but his inventive spirit was undimmed. He developed a device to help himself in and out of bed.The complex arrangement of pulleys and ropes were his undoing. He got caught up in and was strangled to death at the age of 55.

But his awful death was at least quick – not like the slow death his two inventions inflicted on many others!

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