Thomas Midgley Jr, the most environmentally destructive man ever!

Just Logically Speaking
6 min readJan 28, 2022

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Thomas Midgley Jr, the man who could have easily been remembered as one of the greatest inventors in the history of humankind, but is infact remembered as the most destructive one, till date. Midgley is often referred to as the most environmentally disastrous person to be ever known. Born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, in America, Midgley was a sound mechanical and chemical engineer who had a long family line of inventors. His father, his maternal grandfather were all inventors in different fields. Midgley had the knack of experimenting with extremely poisonous chemical substances without worrying about the consequences it would have upon the general population and the environment. And this specific trait brought about the worst out of his inventions. His two inventions “tetraethyl lead” and “Freon 12” would have to be the worst inventions of all time, which has had catastrophic consequences upon generations to follow.

He placed his greed above his deeds

It was the early 20th century, the automobile industry was thriving and Thomas Midgley Jr had recently joined General Motors. The automobile industry at that time was trying to wrap its head around the engine knocking issue, which reduced both power and fuel efficiency leading to repeated breakdowns. The thing is that the early 20th century gasoline was of cheap quality which was effecting the automobile business. Midgley under the direction of Charles Kettering was assigned the job of finding a additive for gasoline, which would allow car engines to run smoothly. Midgley ran the testing of hundreds of substances and finally came upon the conclusion of using ethanol. (Ethanol, the only type of alcohol deemed safe for drinking) .

But the thing with ethanol was that it couldn’t be patented, which meant a serious cut-off in profits. Additionally ethanol production was cheap and simple, so even farmers could produce it from grain. Hence, the idea of ethanol-blended gasoline was a big no-no for GM & Oil corporations.

The Most destructive discovery (Tetraethyl Lead)

By 1921, General Motors had completely scrapped the marketing plan for ethanol-gasoline. The new target for Kettering and Midgley’s team was to look for a new, cheaper and patentable additive for gasoline, which could sow huge profits for the company. And within a few months, Midgley found the compound named Tetraethyl Lead (TEL), as an appropriate additive. TEL qualified as the perfect additive on all forums, it had no commercial application back then, it effectively eliminated engine knocking and most importantly its production costs were pretty cheap. The company branded its product under the name “Ethyl”, clearly discarding the presence of lead in their product before the general public. The thing is that lead was a well known poison back then but sheer ignorance and greed had got the better off Thomas Midgley Jr and his associates.

Midgley was so driven in his euphoria, that he himself in a press conference demonstrated the apparent safety of TEL. He rubbed TEL on his bare hands while also inhaling its fumes for 60 seconds, demonstrating he could do this every day without getting sick. Soon the Ethyl Corporation was set up in different parts of the country with Midgley being appointed as the Vice-President. But lead being poisonous had severe effects on the workers of these plants. There would be recurring cases of insanity, hallucinations, depression and even death among several workers. But the corporation didn’t care and production of this poison continued.

The consequences that followed

Repeated persuasion and intense pressure from large corporations would finally lead the U.S-Authorities to believe that TEL had minimal health effects upon the general public. As a result Regulation barriers started to loosen in several states. And by 1936, Ethyl Gasoline had captured about 90% of the entire gasoline sector in the U.S. What followed was millions of premature deaths and extensive decline in IQ levels throughout the world. For around 50 years, U.S automobiles and petroleum sector would pump hundreds-of-tonnes of lead into the air, water and soil. Lead is a toxic element which harms multiple organs of the human body. Its most adverse effect happens to be in children, leading to a loss of intelligence and increased aggressive behaviour. Lead exposure in childhood has been also linked to rising violent crimes in the society, according to some researchers.

It was only in the 1980s that the negative health impacts of leaded-gasoline would finally overwhelm its touted economic benefits. And soon its progressive phasing out would start in the U.S, followed by Europe in the 2000s. The effects of using leaded-gasoline for nearly a century can be felt till date. According to report from WHO, about 15 to 18 million children in developing countries suffer from permanent brain damage due to lead poisoning, and 90% of all cases are believed to be from leaded gasoline. Leaded gasoline remains to be the single most destructive invention, which bothers the human population and its surroundings till date even after its large-scale extinction.

The second mistake (Freon 12)

As if the leaded-gasoline wasn’t a favour enough to the society, Thomas Midgley Jr set out for another of his disastrous invention. It was the late 1920s, and this time it was the General Motors Refrigeration division which was in need. The issue was around the leakage of refrigeration and air-conditioning devices, which contained toxic gases. Sulfur-dioxide, Propane, Chloromethane and Ammonia to name a few. These gases were both toxic and flammable at the same time, causing concerns over consumer safety. So Midgley and his team set forth for developing a non-toxic and non-flammable refrigerant gas. And in a matter of months, Midgley found that dichlorodifluoromethane, the very first CFCs, is the perfect alternative. Midgley didn’t let go of his showmanship, as he demonstrated the effectiveness of his new invention by inhaling lungful of the gas, only to blow out a candle, in front of the American Chemical Society.

Chlorofluorocarbons spread like wildfire across the world of refrigeration and propellants. But little did Midgley and the rest of the world know that CFCs would lead to what is an effective hole in the Ozone layer, which protects us from the harmful ultra-violet rays of the sun. The thing is that no one knew much about the ozone layer in the stratosphere back in the 1930s. Depletion of ozone from the atmosphere causes serious health hazards like skin cancer and blindness in children. A 1987 world-wide ban on CFCs averted, what was a dangerous rise in the UV-level rays reaching the Earth’s surface.

His last invention

Thomas Midgley Jr received several prestigious awards for his two discoveries which earned him both name and fame. He was once elected as the chairman and president of the American Chemical Society. But by 1940, he had contracted Polio, which had left him paralyzed and bedridden. He hated the feeling of being dependent on someone, hence he decided to invent something for himself. He devised an rope and pulley system, which would help him lift himself outside of his bed. Sadly this invention turned-out to be his last, when on 2nd-November-1944 he died of strangulation from his own invention. Such was the irony of his death that unlike his previous two inventions his last invention turned out to be deadly, but only for himself.

A forgettable legacy

What could we possibly say about a man whose inventions have only brought disgrace to the entire human species. He might most certainly get some respite for his 2nd discovery (Freon 12), whose ill-effects were unknown back then. But TEL was a poison, whose toxic effects were pretty clear from the start. Being a Chemical engineer and head of operations, he should have never set forth with this plan in the first place. But as evident as it may seem, greed and ignorance had clearly got the better off Thomas Midgley Jr. His inventions has always had an adverse effect upon millions of lives worldwide. Large corporations were equally responsible for this menace, as they always have been.

Midgley could have easily ended up being one of the greatest inventors of all time. But all he managed to end with was the legacy of one of the worst inventors of all time. “The man who harmed the world most, by a distance.”

The Principal author of the blog Just Logically Speaking, Susanta Ray is an enthusiast for information and learning. He thrives in subjects related to Modern Technology, Science, History, Space, Finance and Global Affairs.

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