Thomas Midgley Jnr (Born 18 May 1889 -
Died 2 November 1944)
Unbelievably two of the most toxic and world damaging discoveries in the
history of mankind were made by the same person.
Thomas Midgley Jnr
was born in Pennsylvania, but brought up in Ohio USA. It could be said
he was destined for the record books. He was, after all, an outstanding
scholar, gaining a mechanical engineering degree from Cornell University
However, he will be remembered not the convenience his discoveries
gave to mankind, but the damage they subsequently caused the Earth and
thousands of innocent people.
Midgley, the son of an inventor, made his first discovery while
working for a subsidiary of General Motors in 1921.
Discovery Number One: Tetra-ethyl Lead (TEL)
At the time of his discovery Midgley was deemed as a hero. After all his
idea of adding Tetra-ethyl Lead to normal petrol stopped an annoying and
potentially dangerous 'knocking' within the internal combustion engine
of a vehicle.
There was another product already on the market which
counter-effected this problem (with more environmentally friendly
results - Ethanol). However the patent of this product was not held by
Midgley's employers General Motors and they strenuously promoted,
their own patented solution to great success.
Midgley won many coveted awards for his 'discovery' of Tetra-ethyl
Lead despite high numbers of mortality within GM factories. In fact
Midgley himself eventually was retired from General Motors due to
ill health from lead poisoning.
The use of Tetra-Ethyl Lead as an additive in petrol and diesel
over the subsequent decades has seen many thousands of people succumb to
unnecessary cancers, illness and of course the irreparable damage to the
However this was not Mr Midgley worst invention, even though he
suffered lead poisoning himself.
Discovery Number Two:
After discovering such a
profitable solution to automobiles, General Motors charged Mr Midgley
with providing an equally profitable answer to refrigeration.
Midgley was no less successful in this area too. When he discovered
a Chlorinated fluorocarbon, dichlorodifluoromethane or CFCs. In
1937 he was awarded the Perkins Medal for Achievement in America for
this discovery. Then in 1941, he was awarded the
highest honour in the American Chemical Society, the Priestly Medal.
Such was the effectiveness of CFCs they were incorporated into all
aspects of modern day life wholeheartedly. Not only were CFCs present in
refrigerators world wide they also were key components in air
conditioning units, aerosol sprays, inhalers and cleaning products.
However in 1974 Sherwood Rolands and Mario Molina presented a theory
CFCs were damaging the environment, naming depleting the Earth's
protective layer - the Ozone.
It wasn't until 1987 however, even with documented evidence,
something was done. A whole three years after the first hole in the
Ozone layer above the Artic was discovered, at the Montreal Protocol,
110 nations signed a treaty to phase out and ban the production of CFCs.
Europe enforced a total ban in 1995 and America in 1996. However many
less developed countries have until 2010 to phase out the use and
production of CFCs.
Although the full damaging effects are yet unknown from the use of
Tetra-Ethyl Lead in petrol and diesel, the compound has proved fatal to
those working in close proximity, which was evident during it's early
production in the 1930s.
Long term lasting effects of the chemical will be difficult to
determine for decades to come. However changes to world health indicates
More fierce droughts in America and Australia, melting of the Polar
ice caps and flooding worldwide are just some of the consequences the
Earth has seen due to the use of CFCs.
In 2007 the hole in the Ozone layer was recorded to be 21 million
kilometres, though the highest record size of the hole was 28 million
kilometres in 2006. It is predicted to take around 90-100 years to
restore the earth's natural balance once CFCs have been totally banned.