This post is meant to rectify an old blog post I wrote about well-meaning idiots, specifically the inventor Dr. Thomas Midgley, Jr. In that post, I put him in the same category as John Chau, the American missionary who willingly got himself killed by traveling to the Sentinel Islands to preach the Gospel to its infamously solitary natives. But now, I know better. It turns out Midgley wasn’t merely just a well-meaning idiot who didn’t intend any harm, but a greedy asshole who set upon the world his products that poisoned the air.
Personally, I tend to go by Hanlon’s razor, which states that you should not attribute to malice what can be sufficiently explained by stupidity. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule that pop up every now and then, and it turns out that’s exactly how it is in this case. Thomas Midgley’s career has always been a quirky trivia that gets mentioned every now and then in video essays and panel shows like QI. However, it turns out I didn’t dig deep enough.
Then lo and behold, I watched a video that dug deeper and it blew my mind away. I’m not saying that you should just believe whatever you watch that has information you may have not encountered before, but that’s exactly what I got with me learning about Thomas Midgley in the first place. It’s not just on learning the major details of one’s life, but also the context behind their decisions and actions that can affect your long-term understanding of them and their contributions.
There’s a difference between not knowing about the consequences of your actions beforehand and fully knowing what can happen and still going through with it anyway. It turns out that the latter was exactly what Dr. Midgley did, and I hope he’s burning in hell.
He Knew What He Was Doing
I never even thought of it when I first heard of the story. In hindsight, I can’t believe I’d be that naive that this bumbling fool of an inventor would ever have any malice in his heart. That’s due to the stereotype of the introverted boffin whose works are as brilliant as his hair is unkempt. However, Dr. Midgley turned out to not be such a clueless nerd after all.
(The following is also told in the video above.)
It turned out that there was no way he didn’t know about the potential ill effects of adding lead to gasoline since he himself had gotten sick from it. The reason for leaded gasoline is to eliminate knocking, or the fuel auto-igniting upon compression well before the spark plugs kick in. They needed to make fuel less susceptible to knocking, and they did so with an additive.
That’s where Tommy came in. He experimented with various additives like ethyl acetate, aluminum chloride, and even camphor and melted butter.
He had his first success with ethanol, but a lot of it was needed to make fuel knock-free. Also, it was the Prohibition era in America, so ethanol was way more expensive than usual. He then came across tellurium with sodium hydroxide, which worked better but had a stink that was impervious to washing and scrubbing. He slept in the basement for 7 months due to his wife not being able to stand the bad smell.
After five years of continued experimentation, he found what seemed to be the perfect solution on 3 December 1921 — a date that should also live in infamy. He came upon tetraethyllead, or TEL. It checked all the boxes, being cheap and readily available, didn’t have a smell, and it only needed 1 in 1000 parts to be effective. It seemed to be the perfect solution at that time.
He called up his boss Charles Kettering, who he worked under at the Dayton Research Laboratories, a subsidiary of General Motors. He excitedly quipped, “Can you imagine how much money we’re going to make with this? We’re going to make 200 million dollars, maybe even more.” $200 million then is equivalent to around $3 billion now.
The American Chemical Society awarded him with the William H. Nichols Medal for his discovery in 1923. It’s a prestigious annual award given to the chemist with the best discovery of the year, and Midgley’s discovery certainly qualified. General Motors would own the patent for the process, which was filed jointly by Kettering and Midgley.
It was marketed under the name “Ethyl,” making it sound as innocuous as ethyl alcohol while also avoiding all mention of lead. General Motors would team up with DuPont and Standard Oil to form the Ethyl Corporation, and they marketed the hell out of the new fuel additive. The great thing about having knock-free fuel is that it made cars run better, so their best marketing was winning races with the stuff. That led to demand shooting to the moon.
Ethyl Corporation still exists, by the way. They’re still making and selling fuel additives.
After enjoying the fruits of his labor, Midgley would take an extended vacation in Miami. But it wasn’t just to enjoy some sun and relax. He was suffering from lead poisoning.
The effects of lead on health had been known since Roman times. Benjamin Franklin had written about it. Doctors and public health officials from top universities wrote to Midgley about the dangers of what he was unleashing upon the world, but their concerns were dismissed. There was too much at stake for him to cease his actions.
At that point, the TEL train had long disembarked, and it could only be stopped once it was too late.
His next project was finding a substitute for the two most commonly used refrigerants at that time, methyl formate and sulfur dioxide. The former is toxic, while the latter is flammable; they needed a refrigerant that was neither of these things while also being very effective at its purpose.
In 1928, he would develop dichlorodifluoromethane, a colorless gas with a boiling point of -29.8°C that would be marketed as Freon. Also known as R-12, the gas is a chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC. If that name rings a bell, that’s because it’s the main culprit for the hole in the ozone layer.
CFCs are fairly inert until they rise up to the stratosphere, where they can be exposed to ultraviolet light. It triggers a chemical change wherein a chlorine atom separates from the CFC molecule, which then reacts with ozone. The Cl takes an oxygen atom from the O₃, thus resulting in ClO and O₂. The O₂ is no good at blocking ultraviolet rays, unlike O₃.
Without an ample layer of ozone in the atmosphere to shield us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, they raise global temperatures, cause skin cancers and cataracts, and the CFC itself serves as a potent greenhouse gas that adds to climate change.
I’m not entirely sure, but it may be safe to say that he wouldn’t know of the effect of this particular discovery. But going from his previous track record, if there were any misgivings about Freon, he would’ve likely ignored them anyway. The prestige of yet another revolutionary discovery under his name was likely too good to pass up.
Finally, in 1989, the Montreal Protocol was enacted, which mandated the phasing out of substances that cause the widening of the hole on the ozone layer such as CFCs.
When a Malicious Agent is Disguised as a Well-Meaning Idiot
Pardon me while I rant about people and their true intentions. If I could read minds, I wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of stuff.
I’ve had a recent encounter with a person who I thought was an eager yet naive person, but later was found out to be contemptuous and manipulative. Dealing with him was an education I’m glad to have as I’ve realized the number of people I’ve met over the years who had a similar way of doing things, playing dumb to slowly but surely get ahead.
This reminds me of a particular image. Bear with me here as I describe this analogy.
In the Japanese film Battles Without Honor and Humanity, the character who became the main advisor of the boss was a friend of the protagonist who turned out to be a scheming creep. Due to the theatrical treatment of the film, the actors wore their characters on their sleeves, so you could see their nature in their body language.
Masakichi Makihara was made to look like a snake by director Kinji Fukasaku and the brilliant actor Kunie Tanaka, so audiences would wonder how such a man could ever be trusted by Shozo Hirono, the honorable and straight-laced protagonist. His eyes alone give away his deviousness, which I commend Tanaka for. (Kizaru from One Piece was inspired by him.)
But in real life, such people don’t act so outwardly devious. They know how to hide their true intentions and will do their best to put on a friendly face. That’s exactly what I got with that naive-looking guy. Fortunately, I didn’t have to directly deal with his shenanigans, but witnessing his facade fall apart in real time was quite the sight.
Perhaps I bring up those examples because they roughly remind me of Midgley. He seemed like an innocent egghead who didn’t fully understand the repercussions of his work. But it turned out that I was the naive one, believing that he didn’t have a clue about what he was doing. Turned out that he did, yet he died before he could truly see for himself the scale of his transgressions.
Thomas Midgley Jr. would die inadvertently by his own hand. He had contracted polio later in life, thus taking away his mobility. He would devise a mechanical bed that helped him move with a system of ropes and pulley. On 2 November 1944, he would get tangled up and die of strangulation by his own contraption. Perhaps it was a fitting end for someone whose work turned out to harm and even kill so many.
But we can’t say that it was entirely Midgley’s own volition. He was an employee of General Motors whose discoveries would make them millions of dollars, so he was definitely enabled to go through the route he did. With how things panned out, Midgley became the scapegoat, which was convenient for GM, DuPont, Standard Oil, and other corporations.
This also shows how motivating scientists and inventors with profit can lead them to take shortcuts and forego ethical practices. Another example of such a case I can come up with is the invention of tuberculin by Robert Koch as a cure for tuberculosis, which turned out to not be a reliable cure after all. He delayed the disclosure of the process for creating tuberculin, which turned out to just be dead tuberculosis bacteria in glycerine extract.
Tuberculin would go on to be used as a diagnosis tool after Koch’s death, so his efforts weren’t entirely a waste. Also, Koch’s postulates were crucial to our understanding of germ theory. The momentum he gathered from his discovery of anthrax likely made his head big. While he wasn’t chopped liver, his quest for further glory led him astray.
Koch, like Midgley, was so driven to make the discovery and be a savior that he presented his findings without making completely sure that it was airtight.
Such a way of doing things persists to this day since scientists still struggle to get higher grants to fund their studies. While they’re expected to produce studies that are given time and attention to make sure that their results are consistently replicable, they’re incentivized to come out with flashier papers that catch attention, even if they end up being crap. Thus, we now have a replication crisis in science.
However, that wasn’t Midgley’s exact problem. The tragedy of Midgley is that his work had been extremely sound. The discoveries he made were actually the best possible solutions to their respective problems, disregarding their negative effects. Few anti-knocking agents out there can compete with tetraethyllead to this day, and Freon (R-12 and its successor R-22) is still a damn efficient refrigerant.
But praising how effective they are without considering their negative effects is like praising Genghis Khan for his military prowess without considering the millions of deaths caused by his conquests.
I end this the same way as the Veritasium video — with the words of Benjamin Franklin.
“You will observe with concern how long a useful truth may be known and exist before it is generally received and practiced on.”
Have something to say? Do you agree or am I off-base? Did I miss a crucial detail or get something wrong? Please leave whatever reactions, questions, or suggestions you may have in the comment section below.
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