Thomas Midgley, GM, And The Dark Side Of Progress

Scientific improvements that create industries and save millions of lives often come at a price that isn’t revealed until much later. Leaded gasoline helped the automobile industry take off and synthesized Freon extended the lifespan of lifesaving vaccines, but they took an incredible toll on the environment.

Both were invented in the early 20th century by Thomas Midgley, Jr. After graduating from Cornell in 1911 with a degree in mechanical engineering, he worked briefly for National Cash Register where inventor Charles Kettering had just created the first electronic till. In 1916, Midgley started working for Kettering at Dayton Metal Products Company, which soon became the research division of General Motors.

The School of Hard Knocks

Charles Kettering had recently invented an electric ignition at Delco for combustion engines. This innovation would mean the end of hand cranked starting and the demise of steam-powered and electric automobiles. Although Kettering’s electric start made the automobile much more accessible and practical, the early combustion engines had issues. One of the most important and influential things Thomas Midgley did at GM was to find a solution for the engine ‘knock’ that plagued early automobiles.

In 1921, Kettering set Midgley on the task of eliminating engine knock. Not much was known at the time about the intricacies of the internal combustion engine, only that the system successfully propelled a carriage forward. Midgley devised an experiment to try to see what was happening inside the engine, and he discovered that some of the fuel was exploding too early, causing the pinging sound.

The Bohr periodic table. Image via Wolfram Blog
The Bohr periodic table. Image via Wolfram Blog

He tried adding iodine, which worked well. However, iodine was far too cost prohibitive. Midgley continued his research and found several additives that eliminated knock, but for one reason or another were not good solutions. An MIT chemist alerted him to a new periodic table based on the Bohr model of the atom. In this version, the elements are arranged by valence and not by atomic number. Midgley began to transition from a mechanical engineer to a self-taught chemist.

He found that all the known antiknock agents were made of heavy elements and decided that the heaviest ones must be the most promising. He and his team came up with a compound called tetraethyl lead (TEL). This eliminated engine knock completely by raising the octane of the gasoline, which causes higher combustion. The only trouble was that lead deposits formed in the engine. Midgley found that adding ethyl bromide would cause all the lead to be expelled in the exhaust. But now he faced a new problem—finding a cheap way to source large amounts of bromine. He came up with a way to extract it from seawater, but it took ten tons of seawater to obtain one pound of bromine.

A Hefty Price to Pay

The neurotoxic effects of lead have been known for many years. Prolonged exposure to lead has been proven to lower IQ and cause loss of coordination. Although lead appeared in house paints, water pipes, and several kinds of household items in the early 20th century, average exposure levels were fairly low and incidence of lead sickness minimal. Midgley did not believe that TEL posed any more of a threat than anything else containing lead.

Ethyl Corporation sign on a gasoline pump. Image source: Wikipedia
Ethyl Corporation sign on a gasoline pump. Image source: Wikipedia

In 1924, General Motors was headed for a scandal. Although reports of sickness had been coming out of all three tetraethyl refineries, the story was concealed from the newspapers. But things came to a head at the TEL refinery in Bayway, New Jersey. Dozens of workers contracted lead poisoning from breathing the toxic vapors and became violently insane. Five men died within a short time and news coverage was unavoidable.

Midgley stopped at nothing in trying to convince the public that his antiknock additive was safe. He would pour TEL additive onto his own hands and take deep breaths from the bottle in front of large audiences, all the while insisting that it was harmless and that repeated daily exposure was nothing to worry about. What the public didn’t know was that Midgley had recently spent six weeks in Florida, golfing in the sunshine in an attempt to clear his own lungs of lead particles.

CFCs for GM

Refrigerant-12. Image source: this ebay auction
Refrigerant-12. Image source: ebay

Midgley continued to work for Charles Kettering and General Motors. In the 1920s, Kettering assigned him to a team tasked with finding a better cooling compound for air-conditioners and refrigerators. The compounds in use at the time were highly toxic and flammable. Once again, Midgley turned to his periodic table and came up with the first of the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which was sold as R-12 (refrigerant-12). Midgley’s contribution to refrigeration revolutionized vaccine storage and saved countless people from food poisoning.

Somehow, Thomas Midgley didn’t die of lead or refrigerant poisoning. He continued his work even after contracting polio in 1940. The condition took a toll on his legs and made it difficult for him to get out of bed or out of his wheelchair without assistance. He rigged up a system of bars, ropes, and pulleys to help hoist him upright. This invention would be his last, though. One morning in 1944, Midgley’s wife found him dead, strangled in the ropes.

His Legacy

It’s easy to vilify Midgley in hindsight. He created toxic solutions to common problems and denied the dangers of tetraethyl lead even though he’d experienced them firsthand. But Thomas Midgley was not just a villain. He was a curious, hardworking man whose inventions had an enormous affect on history, and he never stopped blazing scientific trails.

75 thoughts on “Thomas Midgley, GM, And The Dark Side Of Progress

  1. No. He was just a villain. When your trailblazing legacy involves lying to people about the dangers of what you’ve created when you’re full aware of those dangers, you are doing an evil thing, and that can and should outweigh whatever you’ve made.

    1. He was the perfect example of a villain. Villains never do evil because they want to do evil, they do evil because it’s right in their eyes. In this case, there was no real evil, till he started to deny that there was an issue with his product.

    2. Maybe the “fully aware” is an exaggeration. He knew it was very dangerous to those who created the compound in a way that exposed them to breathing there Ethyl vapors. This doesn’t mean it is dangerous in small concentrations in fuel or after reacting to another form in combustion (metallic lead is non-toxic – what came out the exhaust pipe?). I’m sure he knew “mad hatters” were insane from mercury poisoning from mercury compounds used in making hats. The compounds were soluble in fats and some in water. Did this make beaver hats (or whatever they were) incredibly dangerous to wear?

      The story and the comments are linking the dangers of production with the dangers of use, which are not connected. How many completely safe compounds do you use every day that use concentrated ammonia, nitric acid, or chlorine in production, where an accident will easily kill people by exposure?

      Ethyl is still used in aviation and (illegally manufactured) in China. Who is the villain there?

      1. “metallic lead is non-toxic”

        Do you have a citation for that? Because everything on the Wikipedia article on lead poisoning indicates inorganic compounds are still toxic, and I can’t think of any reason elemental lead wouldn’t be included in that.

        1. I believe he’s technically right, except that lead does not stay metallic when exposed to your body (moisture, acids,etc). An example of this would be gold. A heavy metal, but it is so non reactive it rarely leaves is metallic form, thus non toxic.

      1. You are aware of how nitrogen fixing works? Right? And that the process generates ammonia (that stuff in your pee), and nothing else? That nitrogen compound not found in sufficient quantity in manure, which is needed by plants as a source of nitrogen?
        In fact, here’s the balanced chemical reaction:

        3H2 + N2 => 2NH3
        (hydrogen + nitrogen => ammonia, forced together with extreme temperature and pressure, thanks to the magic of le chatelier’s principle)

        You can try using crop rotation all you like, you’ll NEVER achieve the same carrying capacity, and the Haber process does it with relatively little impact aside from the energy requirements, simply by producing the ammonia plants need directly.

    1. Here I thought the man who created the dwarf wheat hybrid was credited to staving off much starvation within one on crop in some instances. Soil nitrogen is important, but I don’t know of the energy input for the fritz/harbor process. I do understand some food crops wil fix nitrogen into the soil. Amending the soil while growing food sounds like win/win to me into the soil.. Probably a win for the farmer, but not so much for those who pruce nitrhen industrially No doubt as always the farmer will loose, and as always the farmer will blame isn’t the problem. To feed the most possible with limited resources diets are going to have to change I don’t like that, but I dislike being a thief more.

  2. “Somehow, Thomas Midgley didn’t die of lead or refrigerant poisoning.”
    refrigerant poisoning? Freon is as nontoxic as nitrogen. It is only when it gets into the upper atmosphere that it causes problems Big problems that is with the ozone layer.
    “Midgley did not believe that TEL posed any more of a threat than anything else containing lead.”
    Which was everywhere from fishing weights to toys for kids not to mention paint. BTW you do not go play golf in Florida to clear your lungs of lead…

    Frankly he probably did less lasting harm than people that have protested nuclear power plants and have caused them to be replaced with coal and natural gas fired pants.

    1. While not poisonous, freons are a “simple asphyxiant”…

      The thing with tetra ethyl lead is that it very easily permeates membranes, which is why it’s so dangerous. Lead (well, any heavy metal) is dangerous only when it can get into the body, if it can stay somewhere and not leach into water/food, it’s perfectly fine. Same with mercury. Pure metal is not all that dangerous, it’s the water-soluble salts that are so lethal to us.
      TM knew first hand that exposure to TEL is very bad for you, he could have at least done something to keep the workers in the refineries from such high exposure. He did absolute squat.

      p.s. At least in Europe, gas plants are not doing too well (too expensive), the main problem is the “renewable” energy delusion and warping of the market by subsidising “green” energy instead of building new nuclear plants to replace the old ones.

      1. when it comes to energy it isnt an either or, i fully support nuclear power, fission and fusion, when done right it can even reduce our current nuclear waste rather than increasing it.
        issue is throttling nuclear reactors is delicate business and done over larger timescales, days or weeks in some cases, this presents a problem for a non storing grid as that means regulation becomes hard when the consumption isnt constant.

        this is part of the reason that renewables like wind have become very popular with european grids, they are easily throttled or remotely disconnected and that means one can run bulk supplies at their most efficient.

        1. That’s complete bull. Typically 50-60% of the load is always there on the grid, and France is quite happy throttling reactors according to need.

          Renewables are popular in Europe only due to massive subsidy programs lobbied in by large corporations like Vestas, who used the first climate scare back in 2000, and Chernobyl/Fukushima as a political tool to divert themselves a fuckton of money.

          In practice the European – or rather German/Danish – renewables are on continuous force-feed because they have a right of way on the grid by law. They are not to be throttled down in any way, and if utilities must they have to pay fines and compensations for the downtime – that’s because the subsidies are paid on a per kWh basis. That causes the electricity spot market prices to fall down to negative, meaning that utilities are paying their customers to take the electricity and waste it somehow, anyhow, because they just have to shove it in the grid.

          1. do you have any links or information to support those claims?

            as for renewables having right of way, shouldnt they? they dont use a continous consumption of base stock, something that in tself requires energy to ship.

        2. And, the thing about throttling nuclear reactors is that since the fuel costs are nearly neglible, one can simply dump heat to get them to adjust as fast as you like. The reactor can be throttled down later.

          It’s just that since building nuclear powerplants is a regulatory hell that takes decades to wade through, the unit size of reactors has grown from 300-600 MW up to 1600 MW and those things are simply too massive to react in a reasonable timeframe.

          A small modular reactor could run up and down all day long, but you can’t build those because it wouldn’t be profitable when you can at best get a license to build one reactor per decade.

    2. Nevermind the problem with how R-12 and R-22, both much heavier than air, are supposed to be able to get up to the stratosphere and higher. Or how they are supposed to break down to release the chlorine atoms.

      Fluorine compounds are some of the most stable, hardest to break down stuff chemical science has ever concocted. The reason for that is because fluorine is one of the most reactive elements. It will bond with almost any other element, and do so extremely strongly.

      Volcanoes that are active, slowly venting, just simmering along, put out huge amounts of sulfur and chlorine containing compounds, none as strongly bound together as CFCs. When a volcano has a violent eruption, millions of tons of all kinds of nasty stuff gets an express elevator ride to the stratosphere.

      Some true believer in the CFC destroys ozone story told me that chlorine from volcanic eruptions all “rains out” before it gets to the ozone layer.

      Really? Elemental chlorine and chlorine compounds lighter than CFC’s “rains out” of a volcanic plume shooting skyward at high speed, yet somehow the heavier CFC molecules just march right on up without any benefit of Gaia popping a zit?

  3. Wait a minute! The article states he experience lead poisoning and went to Florida to “clear his own lungs.” Lead is neurotoxin, which means it has to get into the nervous system to do any damage and cause symptoms. Actually, it deposits in the bone marrow. If he was well after going to Florida, then he never had lead poisoning. He may have believed he did, but could not have as the symptoms just don’t go away as there was no chelation therapy for lead when he was alive.

    1. He may have believed he could clear his lungs with some fresh air on a vacation. Medical science was fairly primitive back then. They still thought lobotomy was a perfectly acceptable treatment.

  4. I would suggest we look to the future because that is were all of us are going to spend the rest of our life. There are many things done in the past that have caused harm, but that may have been the only way to have moved forward to discover other potentially, TBD, less dangerous ways of doing things. Another option is to return to a lifestyle of thousands of years ago and not been able to have this conversation. Not my idea of fun!

    1. Looking to the past helps us (the human race) learn about the future.

      There are a crapton of technology and schools of thought that we eagerly throw away because something “better” came along. As a result, I see a lot of “repeated” technology. Sure, certain things are better the second go around, DVDs are are a nice improvement over clunky Laser Discs but it’s hard to be excited about something like the GoPro when I had the Flip before it and I’m quite annoyed at anything even remotely stinking like DIVX (Circuit City not the algorithm).

      Nothing wrong with embracing the “new”. Just don’t forget the past.

    1. Furthermore:

      “As Mr. Midgley labored to perfect his TEL recipe throughout 1922, the world outside of the US was developing a strong preference for all things unleaded. In that very year the League of Nations recommended a ban on interior lead paints due to health concerns, and though Europe complied, the United States declined to adopt the resolution. Midgley received numerous letters from distinguished scientists around the world, urging him away from the “creeping and malicious poison” of tetra-ethyl lead, citing its role in the death of researchers. According to some estimates, each gallon of leaded gasoline burned would emit four grams of lead oxide, resulting in buildup along roadsides and in tunnels, as well as in the air. The warnings went unheeded.”

      1. Also, GM which owned the ethyl corporation, deliberately made engines that wouldn’t work without TEL. They deliberately used softer materials for valve seats, which would erode and burn away without a continuously replenishing layer of lead deposits.

        Lead wasn’t exactly needed after petrochemistry advanced enough to control the length of hydrocarbon chains in the distillate, so you wouldn’t get the early detonating volatiles in the mix – they simply kept adding it because lead made cruddy gasoline work better and selling TEL was such a good business for GM.

    2. They meant it raised the ‘Octane Rating’. Octane rating is simply a measure of how fast the gasoline burns. Gas that burns too fast can cause premeture detonation, that is, it burns rapidly before the piston reaches top dead center, which is bad, causes and awful noise, and really kills efficiency. Even when your timing is adjusted properly, and the burning occurs after TDC, short fast burns are less efficient at transferring energy to the piston than long slow burns.

      That said, many additives can increase the octane rating, including ethanol. E85 is has an Octane Rating of 105 and obviously contains very little real octane.

  5. “synthesized Freon extended the lifespan of lifesaving vaccines, but they took an incredible toll on the environment”

    Really? How many died? How many species went extinct?

    What NONSENSE. Leave us alone.

    Go back to posting about hacks, and save the lefty geopolitics for Daily Kos.

        1. Are you calling Australia’s issues ‘nonsense’?

          Humans have done waaaaaay to much environmental damage, some like the ozone problem, at the cost of citizens lives, others like the damage to the Great Barrier Reef at the lost of economic opportunity for the country.

          That is not even counting the economic and other longterm damage to the biosphere of Australia due to invasive species humans introduced, which is a whole separate problem that costs the citizens of Australia a small fortune each and every year.

          “Save the environment” is hardly “nonsense” if you open your eyes and use that lump of gray matter in your skull, or at the least learn how to use a bloody calculator. It seems like money is the only thing people like you understand, so try thinking about it in terms of the money the prior lack of environmental protections has cost and will keep costing Australia for years to come.

    1. Ozone “holes” over the poles, where only some animals and a few researchers *might* be affected. Sunlight both breaks apart and creates ozone. The poles alternately experience several months of constant darkness and constant sunlight. It’s only natural there would be less ozone in the arctic and antarctic regions. The polar atmosphere also has to deal with charged particles from the Sun being guided right at it by Earth’s magnetic field.

      The whole deal with banning R-12 and R-22 smacks of a deal to make money with new, freshly patented refrigerants, that also happen to require new, synthetic lubricants. Also a boon to the companies making the refrigeration hardware because the new refrigerants worked better at higher pressures.

      As R-134a was nearing the end of its patent, there appeared claims that it was a “powerful greenhouse gas” worse than CO2 or methane. Gee, wonder why. Couldn’t be that refrigerant manufacturers were wanting to get rid of it so they could make even more money off a new and patented replacement…

      It’s common in medicines, for example Prilosec and Nexium. They’re made by the same company. When Prilosec went off patent, they made a slight change to the molecule, named it Nexium and patented it again. Of course the name brand Nexium is ‘better’ than the generic old Omeprazole (Prilosec)! Surprising that some bad side effects (but not bad enough to warrant huge lawsuits) weren’t “discovered” to get Omeprazole taken off market.

  6. From the Damn Interesting article:

    “It is worth noting, however, that in the early years of Ethyl’s availability, basic refinery advances boosted the base octane of fuel by 20-30 points, whereas Ethyl additive only boosted it by about nine points. In retrospect, Ethyl’s octane improvements were somewhat overstated, and the product owed most of its success to crafty marketing, misleading research, and chronic government incompetence.”

  7. “Charles Kettering had recently invented an electric ignition at Delco for combustion engines. This innovation would mean the end of hand cranked starting”

    No, Kettering did not invent the ignition system, he’s credited with inventing the starter, and the team he was working with invented the automotive electrical system that incorporated the starter, the generator, the ignition system, and current for lighting all into one system. The ignition system had been invented long before. FYI he was the leader of what became Delco (Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company).

    Midgely was not just a villain, was he did was closer to super-villain status, here’s a great read.
    Anyone who tried to release a report on the negative health effects of lead would have their lab or workspace raided to shut down the study. Then the “raiders” would essentially say “we’ve already done that study and here are the results” instantly producing said results. Interestingly, no matter what angle of environmental study the original curious people were studying, the results of the “raiders” were always neutral or positive.

    Midgely only found two additives he thought would work and be cheap enough to make in the quantities they thought they needed. The other additive that worked was a myriad of forms of alcohol (insert NASCAR and Moonshine runner reference here, insert link to the old movie “Thunder Road” here). Midgely knew that maintaining intellectual rights for all the different forms of alcohol that worked (or may work but he hadn’t thought of testing them yet) would be impossible so he went with TEL instead.

    Very interesting article, they also discuss how TEL markets changed as the US started to phase out it’s use. DuPont jumped the price of the TEL additive 10-15 fold and continued to sell it to 3rd world countries for years. Also a lot of the effects of airborne lead also happen to be symptoms of ADD/ADHD.

    Maybe I’m wrong, maybe Midgely is only a villain, and DuPont is the real super-villain. I just wonder how DuPont was the company that ended up with all the initial rights to PTFE, which DuPont calls “Teflon”, when PTFE emerged out of the Manhattan Project. If DuPont is a super-villain, GM is also. As a hater of GM (mostly because of this TEL thing), I do enjoy the fact that the founder of GM, had a middle name of Crapo. That fact bugs the Chevy fanboys about as much as pointing out that all the first year Corvettes had 6 cylinder engines, needless to say, I’m not a ‘Vette fan either.

  8. I’m in agreement with Backwoods Engineer.. Stick to covering hacks. The continuing Social Fascism of Cultists fools sickens me. I do, however, learn the story of how evil GM really is & how this corporate corruption remains today. I’m one who experienced an injury accident by defective ignition switch in my Saturn. Never another GM product for me or mine!
    Holodeck: yes humans are a disease, but getting better at mass eradication, so there’s still hope that the problem will be self correcting! Now, if only we could convince the 49% voters that their Messiah, Obummer, wants them to commit mass suicide!.. Poof! Idiot cleansing! Stronger gene pool in one swell foop!

    1. By definition, average IQ doesn’t raise or lower, the mean is always set at 100 points. That said, I understand there’s some strong correlation between the removal of lead from paint and gasoline to the decrease in violent crime over the past several decades.

    1. Interesting video the shot of the pipeline showed a “pig” inside with explaining it’s purpose. The video state that butane and propane aren’t collected. Tell that the propane in my 500 G.tank or the butane my fire power soldering iron burns.

  9. Whe lesdfree gasoline was mandate there was an article in an old car enthusiasts magazine. The srticl parrorted what every old car owner wanted to believe about lead free gasoline. At the end of the article it was revealed that the article was reprint from an older magazine stating how bad lead was going to be for engines. Tit for tat the article stated the same problems without lead as was also stated for lead attatives. Man we all belong to some breed of sheeple or other.

  10. If we’re out to call anyone a villain it’s the people who allow treatments and food additives to be put out to the consumer without regard for long term effect. When I see an advertisement for a medication and the warning about the possible side effects is longer than the information telling me what the medication is designed to do…be worried. When a food additive is allowed because it makes a food more colorful, therefore profitable….be worried.

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