On April 24, 1935, the newspaper “La Libertad” informed its readers of “How man will live in a century, according to the prophecies of Dr. Thomas Midgley.” So read the headline, which in its following paragraphs assured that “in a hundred years one will travel between the planets, one will work a maximum of two hours a day and human life can be prolonged indefinitely thanks to the elimination of epidemics and serious diseases”. The report by this president of the American Chemical Society to which he referred was “Chemistry in the Next Century.
In his forecasts, Midgley also defended that in 2035 “toothbrushes and towels will no longer be used. And besides, there will be chickens as fat as pigs and eggs the size of a soccer ball. Pigs will be more like cows and bulls will look like mastodons. ‘ “That year – adds the newspaper addressing the reader – his main problem will be how to have fun after having worked his two hours a day. And the golf courses will not be enough either, because they will have made such good balls that they will travel two kilometers in one go. There are still 16 years to go to know if these prophecies of Dr. Midgley will be fulfilled or not, although it seems difficult that most of them will come true. What this American engineer did not talk about in his report are the creations that gave him fame (and money) in the first half of the 20th century, but today they lead him to be considered by many environmental experts as one of the most important inventors.
Dangerous in history. Responsible, among other things, for the acceleration of climate change and the hole in the ozone layer that today worries the main powers of the world. Leaded gasoline, Thomas Midgley was born in Pennsylvania (United States) in 1889 and it was not until 1911 that he graduated as a mechanical engineer from Cornell University. Five years later he was already working for General Motors, the company where he made his name with his first – and highly damaging – first discovery. He came to it with fellow engineer Charles Kettering in 1921, when they came up with the idea of adding a compound called tetraethyl lead to automobile gasoline. In this way, the combustion process was improved and the enormous vibration of the engine and the noise it generated was eliminated.
This was a common problem in engines in the early 20th century. When it approached its maximum load, it emitted a series of noises and tremors that ended up breaking it. After a long study, Midgley found that tetraethyl lead – known by the abbreviation for TEL – immediately eliminated this problem when added to fuel. And not only that, but it increased its performance and vehicle speed. This type of gasoline hit the market in 1923, marketed by General Motors along with several oil companies and car manufacturers under the Ethyl brand. Seeing the benefit and profitability of their discovery, General Motors and Standard Oil later formed the Ethyl Corporation, which monopolized its manufacture and sales.
Thomas Midgley became vice president and a prominent member of the company’s board of directors, receiving large percentages of the profits. Perhaps that is why he never mentioned the word “lead” when marketing TEL alongside gasoline. The engineer had to be perfectly aware of the dangers of lead poisoning since they were well known at that time. And when the first cases began to appear among workers who handled Ethyl, the corporation insisted that this product was not the cause, Five dead.
In October 1924, at an experimental plant in New Jersey, five workers died and another 35 were poisoned. They suffered tremors and hallucinations. Soon after, Midgely himself was also poisoned by inhaling TEL vapors and washing his hands with it in an attempt to publicly prove that his invention was entirely safe. The engineer was forced to take a vacation to deal with the consequences of his contact with lead, although he publicly continued to defend that there was no problem and that the workers had not taken adequate precautions.
Midgley’s invention caused huge amounts of lead to be released into the atmosphere for decades, with the consequent health damage it caused to the population of many of the countries that began to use this leaded gasoline. According to David Rosner, a historian at Columbia University quoted in “History,” this episode “presented, of course, a very great ethical dilemma. Either because Midgley was fooling himself or consciously lying to the world, and even if he was truly oblivious to what future generations would have to deal with his product.
The TEL scandal eventually spilled over into the Ethyl Corporation, to the point that several states in the United States ended up banning leaded gasoline. At least, until the United States Bureau of Mines published a study that claimed that TEL did not pose any risk to health or the environment. A report in whose preparation, yes, the pressure exerted by the plant intervened, which moved the necessary strings for it to see the light. As a result of its diffusion, many countries ended up choosing this gasoline as their reference fuel.
In the 1970s, 370,000 tons of leaded gasoline were still sold per year worldwide.
Its manufacture has held a place among the first industries in the United States since the 1950s. In the 1980s and early 1990s, this trend in production and sale grew, despite the publication of numerous studies on its toxicity and accumulation in the atmosphere. Each liter carried 0.52 grams of lead, releasing a large amount of this element each year. More than 80% was in the United States because of its cheap gasoline and its many large and inefficient cars.
It was from that decade on when a serious process began to replace lead with another series of additives. As a result, leaded gasoline sales in the United States had already fallen to 1930 levels by the end of the 1990s. Fortunately, by the turn of the century, they accounted for less than 25% of world gasoline production. However, the European Parliament did not ban unleaded gasoline until 2000, as part of a package of measures to strengthen legislation against pollution from cars.
Thomas Midgley was responsible for another invention equal to or more harmful than TEL: chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs. A creation of his that improved the refrigeration in the house, but seriously destroyed the ozone layer. It is true that this irreparable damage to our planet was not discovered until decades later thanks to the research of the Mexican scientist Mario Molina, but today it is already considered one of the most harmful chemical compounds in the world. Our protagonist, however, died without knowing it, convinced that he had made a great contribution to the development of our civilization.
As Tom Jackson explained in his book “Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World and Might Do So Again” published in 2015, “the best refrigerants ever made at first they contained ether and ammonia, both highly flammable. ‘ To understand what this means, the author gave the example of an industrial refrigerator that was exhibited at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, which ended up being caught on fire and exploded, killing 17 firefighters. “While domestic refrigerators – he added – used sulfur dioxide for the next thirty years, although it was not flammable, it was highly toxic. The leaks of this gas ended the lives of many families while they slept during that time.
Initially, General Motors’ refrigerator division, Frigidaire, racked up losses as a result of the bad reputation of its products and the danger they posed to families. As a result, the good guy from Midgley got down to work with a team of scientists. The goal was to find a refrigerant that was neither toxic nor flammable. They found the solution in 1928: chlorodifluoromethane, the world’s first CFC. A couple of years later they were already selling the gas under the brand name Freon-12. To demonstrate his safety, Midgley even inhaled it and tried to light it with a candle.
The result was a success and soon General Motor multiplied the sale of the refrigerators. ABC raved about this compound many years after it appeared on the market. Specifically, in the issue of September 15, 1946: “Until 1930, the gases used as refrigerants were toxic and flammable, and also expensive. They caused deaths and fires. However, Thomas Midgley invented freon. And with it, refrigeration appliances became lighter and smaller. It was even capable of air conditioning the submarines, to such an extent that the crew could smoke inside. Something that was strictly forbidden before.
From refrigerators, freon passed into air conditioners and all kinds of aerosols. «This gas – defended this newspaper – comes to regulate the summer climate. And so, just as we have heating at home, in factories and workshops, where we work not with numb hands and bodies but comforted by the good temperature, we will also work with a good temper on hot summer days. We will have an excellent artificial climate in offices, shops, theaters, hotels, trains, casinos, and wherever there are venues with the possibility of installing air conditioners.
The first announcement about the appearance of freon was published in the Congress of the American Chemical Society in Atlanta in 1929. In 1930 an article about its discovery appeared in a scientific journal and the patent was formalized. It was so successful that CFCs spread to thousands of other everyday products over decades. It was not until 1980 that chlorofluorocarbons were suspected of being the cause of the depletion of the ozone layer. Our engineer, therefore, is the person who has contributed the most to global warming and climate change, a challenge that is today on the agenda of the world’s major powers. Even though CFCs like Freon-12 were banned or severely restricted starting with the 1987 Montreal Protocol, they still remain in the atmosphere.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States Government, they have a useful life of up to 140 years in the atmosphere. Midgley, however, won nearly every prestigious award in his profession: the Willard Gibbs Medal, the Nichols Medal, the Priestly Medal, and the Perkin Medal. in fact, he accumulated another 170 patents beyond his two famous creations until his death in 1944. He had contracted polio in 1940 and was left paralyzed as a result. In order to get out of bed, he invented a system of ropes and pulleys, which was the one with which he died of strangulation four years later. It was never entirely clear whether it was an accident or suicide.