The Fruits of Civilization (67-11) Thomas Midgley Jr.

 Thomas Midgley Jr.

When I’m gone, I have no regrets to offer. ~ Thomas Midgely Jr. in 1944

By the time he died, American mechanical and chemical engineer Thomas Midgley Jr. (1889–1944) was hailed as one of the great inventors of the 20th century. Certainly, his legacy was lasting.

Midgley began working at General Motors in 1916. In 1921, Midgley discovered how to prevent “knocking” in gasoline engines: add a bit of lead. GM deceptively advertised the additive as “Ethyl,” avoiding any mention of the well-known toxicant. In 1923, Midgley took a long vacation, hoping to cure himself of lead poisoning.

The development of lead poisoning will come on so insidiously that leaded gasoline will be in nearly universal use before the public and the government awaken to the situation. ~ American physiologist Yandell Henderson in 1924

Leaded gasoline was adopted worldwide, despite scientific outcry. Only in the early 2000s was the deadly additive phased out in most industrialized countries.

In the late 1920s, GM had Midgley working on a way to improve the refrigerants used in refrigerators and air conditioners. The currently used chemicals were toxic, flammable, or explosive.

Midgley settled on a chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), which was trademarked “Freon.” (Belgian chemist Frédéric Swarts pioneered the synthesis of CFCs in the 1890s.) CFCs went on, in various concoctions, to keep devices and people cool worldwide.

Highly stable, non-inflammable and altogether without harmful effects on man or animals. ~ American mechanical engineer Charles Kettering, who worked with Midgley at GM in developing ethyl and CFCs

In 1974, American chemist Sherwood Rowland and Mexican chemist Mario Molina published an article suggesting that CFCs were eating huge holes in the atmospheric ozone layer, which helps keep the planet cool. CFCs were ostensibly banned worldwide by 2110, but their use continues, albeit at a much lower rate than in the mid-1990s, when many countries belatedly decided something should be done.

Midgley contracted polio at 51, rendering him severely disabled. He devised an elaborate motorized system of cables and pulleys to help lift him from his bed. In 1944, Midgley died of strangulation, having become ensnared in his own contraption.