Discover the story of the inventor celebrated for creations that threatened the planet

Discover the story of the inventor celebrated for creations that threatened the planet

Facing a crowd of journalists, the inventor Thomas Midgley Jr. poured a lead additive onto his hands and then inhaled its fumes for about a minute. Impassively, he said: “I could do this every day without having any health problems.”

Soon after, Midgley needed medical treatment. But the act would have dire consequences beyond his own well-being.

The year was 1924, and Midgley, then a chemical engineer for General Motors, had made this demonstration to support his most recent and lucrative discovery: a lead compound called tetraethyl lead . Added to gasoline, it solved one of the biggest problems facing the automotive industry at the time — engine knock, or small explosions in car engines due to the poor quality of gasoline, resulting in an irritating sound and possible damage. Lead helped, but at a very high cost, as the substance is highly toxic to humans, especially children.

Midgley would leave his mark on history with another destructive invention, also a solution to a problem: the need to replace the harmful and flammable gases used in refrigeration and air conditioning. He discovered that CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, were an ideal and harmless substitute for humans. However, they have proven deadly for the ozone layer in the atmosphere, which blocks dangerous ultraviolet radiation that can cause skin cancer and other health problems, as well as harm plants and animals.

One hundred years after that press demonstration in 1924, the planet is still recovering from the harmful effects of Midgley's two inventions. The ozone layer will need another four decades to fully recover, and because leaded gasoline was still sold in parts of the world until 2021, many continue to live with the long-term effects of lead poisoning.

Yet Midgley — whose story will be told in a film in development by the screenwriter of 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street — has been hailed as a hero for decades.

An inventor from an early age

Born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (USA), in 1889, Midgley had a penchant for finding useful applications for known substances from an early age. In high school, he used chewed bark from elm trees to give baseballs a more curved trajectory, a practice professional players would later adopt.

He was known to carry a copy of the periodic table his main tool in the search for the substance that would mark his revolutionary invention.

The task of solving the engine detonation problem was assigned to Midgley while working at General Motors in 1916.

“It was the beginning of the automobile era in the United States, and Ford had developed the Model T, which was not very powerful,” said Gerald Markowitz, a history professor at the City University of New York. “GM teamed up with Standard Oil and DuPont to try to develop more powerful engines and, to do that, they needed to solve the problem of engines detonating with the fuel they had at the time.”

Under the direction of Charles Kettering, another influential American inventor and head of GM research, Midgley tested thousands of substances—including arsenic, sulfur, and silicon—in the search for one that would reduce detonation when added to gasoline. He eventually found tetraethyl lead, a lead derivative that was marketed simply as Ethyl. Leaded gasoline was first sold in Dayton, Ohio, in 1923 and eventually spread throughout the world.

Lead is highly poisonous, with no safe level of exposure, and can harm development in children, causing reduced intelligence and behavioral disorders, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef). An estimated 1 million people still die annually from lead poisoning, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The toxicity of lead was already well known when Midgley added it to gasoline, but that didn't stop Ethyl from becoming a commercial success.

“There were warnings, because lead was known to be a toxin,” Markowitz said. “But the industry's position was that there was no proof that lead coming out of car exhausts would harm people. And it was this lack of evidence that led the surgeon general to take no action after a public health conference in 1925.”

However, workers manufacturing Ethyl soon experienced ill effects.

“It was really the fact that people working in the labs producing tetraethyl lead were getting sick that created a crisis,” Markowitz said. “They would literally go crazy from lead exposure.”

Midgley went so far as to pour Ethyl over his hands and inhale it during the 1924 press conference in an attempt to calm fears.

But in reality, he was also being poisoned.

“He definitely wrote in a letter in January 1923 that he had a touch of lead poisoning, and he had lead poisoning for the rest of his life,” said Bill Kovarik, professor of communications at Radford University in Virginia. “It doesn't really go away when you have so much lead in your body. It is a serious and long-term disability.”

Sticking the layer

Just a few years after the invention of Ethyl, Midgley—again encouraged by Kettering—turned his attention to developing a non-toxic and non-flammable alternative to refrigerant gases, such as ammonia, which were used in appliances and air conditioners at the time, leading to a series of fatal accidents in the 1920s.

He invented Freon — a derivative of methane, composed of carbon, chlorine and fluorine atoms — the first CFC . In another public demonstration in 1930, Midgley inhaled the gas and extinguished a candle with it, a move designed to show his safety.

Freon, like subsequent CFCs, became a commercial success and drove the adoption of air conditioning in the United States. After World War II, manufacturers began routinely using CFCs as propellants for all types of products, including insecticides and hair sprays.

It was in the mid-1970s, three decades after Midgley's death, that the harms of his two inventions became publicly known. CFCs had created a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica; If left unchecked, the hole would have expanded to the point where it would eventually threaten all life on Earth.

As a result of continued industry pressure, leaded gasoline was not phased out in the United States until 1996, and slowly throughout the rest of the world. The last nation to get rid of it, Algeria, was still selling it as of 2021, and lead additives continue to be used in jet fuel. A 2022 study estimated that half of the current U.S. population was exposed to dangerous levels of lead in childhood, but the harm to the world's collective health is more difficult to quantify.

In 1987, the Montreal Protocol was signed to eliminate CFCs from 1989 until 2010, after which they were banned. (CFC emissions have been rising again recently, a sign that they may still be being produced illegally.) The hole in the ozone layer is recovering and will likely heal within the next fifty years, in a rare environmental victory.

“The very sad truth is that we especially don’t know the number of children who have been adversely affected,” Markowitz said. “There is no safe level of lead in a child’s body. We’re talking about tens of millions of children, hundreds of millions of children over half a century or more who have been adversely affected, their life chances diminished by lead dust as a result of exhaust gases entering the ground or the streets.”

A tragic death

Midgley's life ended under tragic circumstances. After contracting polio in 1940, he became seriously disabled and created yet another invention: a machine that would lift him from bed to a wheelchair autonomously, using ropes and pulleys. But on November 2, 1944, he became entangled in the machine and strangled to death.

For a long time, this was believed to be the ultimate irony—the inventor dying by his own invention. But the reality may be even bleaker, according to Kovarik.

“The official cause of death was suicide,” he said. “He had a tremendous sense of guilt. The industry said he was brilliant. But he did things that, in retrospect, were quite irresponsible. Lead poisoning may have contributed to his psychosis.”

Midgley received numerous awards and honors in the final stages of his life. The Society of Chemical Industry awarded him the Perkin Medal in 1937; the American Chemical Society awarded him the Priestley Medal in 1941 and elected him president in the year of his death.

A National Academy of Sciences biography written by his mentor Kettering in 1947 contains nothing but praise and ends by saying that Midgley left “a great legacy to the world of a busy, diverse, and highly creative life.”

History has other examples of inventions that turned out to be unintentionally deadly, such as TNT, which was originally developed for use as a yellow dye and was not used as an explosive until decades later. Midgley is unique in having developed two of these inventions, but although it is tempting to see him as an environmental villain, experts say his role was more akin to that of a cog in the machine.

“He was just an employee,” Kovarik said.

Markowitz agrees. “This was corporate-sponsored research,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for Midgley, I’m sure it would have been someone else who would have found these solutions.”

Striving for growth and innovation at any cost reflected the conception of progress in the first half of the 20th century, Markowitz added. “Only with the environmental movement that began in the 1960s and 1970s did we begin to consider what the consequences of technological progress might be,” he said.

“It had a really sobering effect, but until the 1950s, there were very few voices questioning the idea that progress was our most important product.”

Ozone layer expected to recover completely in the coming decades

Source: CNN Brasil