The last half century has been marked by many things that we as a people can look back on and think “What were we thinking?!”
Among these accidental idiocies we have the creation of Zyklon B, an insecticide used as the poisonous gas in the murder of millions during the Holocaust. It was invented by a Jewish scientist during WWI. We also have the drug Ecstasy which was originally a by-product of a medical development hoping to combat abnormal bleeding during WWI.
The biggest culprit of them all:
Thomas Midgley, had he been alive to see the impact his “discoveries” would have on the world, may have not only asked this question of himself many times but may have apologized to the rest of civilization for his efforts.
You see, Midgley made two gigantic errors that, at the time seemed like a smart plan. The first problem he tackled was in dealing with an odd happening in combustion engines. There was a “knocking” sound that would occur in some cars caused by pockets of air that would explode outside of the normal “air/fuel” mixture being ignited by the spark plugs in an engine. This small explosion, usually harmless but possibly destructive, would cause a pinging or knocking sound. This was an issue that Thomas Midgley decided to use his talents to fix and fix he did. By inserting the chemical substance Tetraethyllead (TEL) into gasoline, the knocking all but subsided. The problem is, TEL is lead and very poisonous to pretty much every living thing on the planet. To stay away from using the word lead, General Motors called the substance Ethyl. For his efforts, Midgley was awarded the Nichols Award by the American Chemical Society. Due to his work with lead, Midgley himself had to take an extended vacation to rebuild his health.
As many people are very aware now, Leaded Gasoline is highly toxic. At the time it was known that lead was poisonous, but the bigger issue was the problem with the engine. When Midgley was asked about the dangers of Ethyl he held a press conference wherein he showed how safe the mixture was by washing his hands with it and even breathing deeply of the substance for sixty seconds. This proved to the media that the stuff had to be safe, however Midgley once again had to take an extended health vacation due to his sideshow stunt… something the media only found out about MUCH later.
Knowingly putting a deadly chemical into the atmosphere is reason enough to condemn Midgley’s actions. However it doesn’t stop there. Midgley had another ace up his sleeve and this time it would not only attack the living, but the protective ozone layer as well.
Refrigeration was a modern marvel and something that allowed everyone a chance to save food from spoiling. However, the chemicals used as refrigerants to keep the containers cold (ammonia, chloromethane, propane, and sulfur dioxide) were highly poisonous if ever inhaled and also had the ugly habit of exploding. If your fridge leaked any of these hazardous chemicals while you slept, chances were you wouldn’t be waking up. Midgley comes along and with the backing of General Motors and the help of other scientists, creates dichloroflouromethane which we know as a chloroflourocarbon or CFC. The CFC they created was given the name Freon. The thing that was most promising was that at first glance these CFC’s weren’t toxic and thus considered safe in the use of refrigeration. Soon CFC’s were being plugged into everything from aerosol cans of hair spray to asthma inhalers. If you’ve never used an inhaler with CFC’s and then been asked to switch to one without, then you don’t know the issues involved. My brother and I were both adamantly against the change. The inhalers without CFC’s just didn’t seem to work as well. Either way, for his efforts, The Society of Chemical Industry awarded Midgley the Perkin Medal.
In the next decade Midgley was awarded numerous awards and medals for his discoveries and inventions. However here we sit in 2012 with a lead content many times greater in our atmosphere than has ever been in recorded history. Lead is something our bodies are not designed to handle and can cause serious issues both physically and mentally. With CFC’s in use for over 50 years we saw not only a depletion of our ozone layer but the possible increase in global temperatures due to the introduction of the chemical into the air.
Midgley came to his end after suffering a bought of Polio wherein he was left severely handicapped. Ever the inventor, Midgley devised a contraption of pulleys and ropes to help others hoist him out of bed. At the age of 55, Thomas Midgley met his maker when he found himself wrapped up by his own contraption and strangled to death.
He died before ever knowing the amount of damage he truly caused on the world. It is possible that there hasn’t been a single living person who had more impact on the world than this obscure scientist did through his work for General Motors.
Note: I am not a scientist by a long shot. I however have a fondness for understanding the truth about things. If for whatever reason I am wrong in my science here, please forgive me. I am more interested in the knowledge of Midgley and his impact than the science behind his creations.
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