Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Forgotten American Bastard Blogging: Thomas Midgley

Americans love technology. We follow technology's lead wherever it may take us. We don't care if it destroys all notions of privacy. We don't care that it pollutes the planet. We don't care that it is produced in the backyards of poor people. We don't care that we have to despoil developing world countries to make the stuff. None of this matters. When new technology comes knocking, we always answer the door. Of course, our national technological fetish has been pushed by industry and government as much as by consumer demand.

While much of this technology has made our lives better, some of it has had disastrous effects. A surprising amount of this technology was created by one man: Thomas Midgley. Born in 1889 in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, Midgley grew up in Columbus, Ohio and graduated from Cornell University in 1911 with a degree in mechanical engineering. In 1916, he began working at the Dayton Research Laboratories. A subsidiary of General Motors, Midgley was part of a team looking to improve the performance of automobiles.

In 1921, Midgley discovered that when you added lead to gasoline, it boosted engine performance and allowed manufactures to sell edgier and faster cars. People weren't really comfortable with leaded gasoline. We forget that early cars were not always precursors to the environmental nightmare of current automobiles. Many were electric. These electric cars were largely designed for women, who were not thought able to start an engine. Sadly, the industry  left these electric cars behind when engines became easier to start; in fact, today's technology barely surpasses that of the 1910s.

The problem Midgley was working on was something called "engine knock." Basically, electrical engines were causing the engine to rattle around at high (for the time) rate of speeds, potentially destroying it. Midgley discovered that if you add tetraethyl lead to gasoline, you eliminated the knock. The automobile, oil, and lead companies celebrated.

The thing is that there were other ways to get rid of engine knock. If you burned grain alcohol in an auto engine, you didn't get engine knock at all. But there was no money in grain alcohol. People could make their own fuel. That was not a good business model for GM, Standard Oil, and other interested parties.

But they faced opposition. In 1922, William Mansfield Clark from the U.S. Public Health Service publicly explained that tetraethyl lead was extremely poisonous and could endanger public health along highways and in cities. U.S. Surgeon General H.S. Cumming wrote a letter to Pierre du Point, chairman of the DELCO, the chemical company, about leaded gasoline's health hazards. Midgley was given the task of responding. He admitted that he had done no studies, but "the average street will probably be so free from lead that it will be impossible to detect it or its absorption." At the same time, Midgley himself was recovering from lead poisoning he received working on the project.

In 1923, GM agreed to allow the U.S. Bureau of Mines to do a study of leaded gasoline, but it forged agreement with the agency that the reserachers had to submit their report to GM first for comment. This ensured nothing damaging to the company would come out. A series of studies in the 1920s claimed lead gasoline caused no harm. Some scientists publicly attacked these biased studies, but GM had its way.

Meanwhile, beginning in 1923, DELCO was producing leaded gasoline. GM, Du Pont, and Standard Oil came together in 1924 to form a company to sell ethyl gasoline and America's leaded gasoline craze began in earnest. Unfortunately, people working on the project began dropping dead. 2 died of lead poisoning in 1923. They built a new plant in New Jersey, but 8 more workers died in the next year. In response to a public health outcry and in order to prove that leaded gasoline didn't cause sickness, Midgley called a press conference where he breathed in a bottle of tetraethyl gasoline for 60 seconds. However, he kept from the media that the case of lead poisoning he suffered was so severe that it took him nearly a year to recover.

Midgley also invented Freon, the world's first chlorofluorocarbon, in 1930.While the discovery of CFC's helped make Midgley a rich man and gave Americans air conditioning and hairspray cans, CFC's also put a huge hole in the ozone layer. After over fifty years of unregulated CFC use, a giant hole in the ozone layer developed over Antarctica that was definitively linked to CFC usage. Luckily, we have found this one environmental problem relatively fixable, as the hole has generally not grown in the last 20 years as most of the world has cut back on its CFC usage. Nevertheless, Midgely's invention proved spectacularly ruinous to the environment for most of the 20th century.

With his developed of both lead gasoline and CFC's one environmental historian noted that Midgley "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth history."

Somewhat ironically, Midgley died from one of his own inventions, though not the ones that would kill so many others. In 1940, he contracted polio. He fought that terrible illness, designing a series of pulleys that would drag him from his bed. However, in 1944, he got caught up in the ropes and they strangled him.