Thomas Midgley Jr was a mechanical engineer and inventor. Although he had no formal training in chemistry, he invented Freon, a chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), the chemical that made mass market refrigerators possible, among other things. At the time, 1928, Freon was a great advance, a replacement for toxic and dangerous refrigerants like sulfur dioxide, methyl chloride, and ammonia which killed and injured people regularly.
Midgley discovered Freon in less than a week. He couldn't have known that it would result in the thinning of the stratospheric ozone layer over Antarctica and the Arctic years later. In 1928, Gordon Dobson had just begun his global ozone monitoring network. The Antarctic ozone hole CFCs caused is expected to close around 2050.
Thomas Midgley geoengineered our world, as an accident, and never knew it.
In 1930, Midgley inhaled a lungful of Freon and then blew out a lit candle to show the American Chemical Society that CFC was non-toxic and non-flammable. That same year, Sydney Chapman described the theory that explains the existence of an ozone "layer." CFCs soon became the refrigerant of choice and by 1950 more than 80 percent of American farms and more than 90 percent of urban homes had a refrigerator. In addition, air conditioners had helped to develop the South and Southwest. In 1973 James Lovelock, one of the originators of the Gaia theory, detected CFC's in the atmosphere and in 1984 British Antarctic Survey scientists discovered the recurring springtime Antarctic ozone hole. The Montreal Protocol was signed in 1987 and in March 1988 DuPont agreed to reduce and eliminate CFC production. The worldwide production of CFCs was totally phased out by 2005, according to the relevant industrial organization, AFEAS.
Midgely, the son and grandson of inventors, has another claim on being the first geoengineer. He put lead in gasoline. Midgley discovered that tetraethyl lead (TEL) stops knock in internal combustion engines while working for Charles Kettering and General Motors in 1921. All of them knew that lead was toxic. Midgley himself had lead poisoning and had to take time off to recover. "After about a year's work in organic lead," he wrote, "I find that my lungs have been affected and that it is necessary to drop all work and get a large supply of fresh air." He recovered in Miami, Florida.
In March 1922, Pierre du Pont, chairman of General Motors, wrote to his brother Irénée du Pont, Du Pont company chairman, that TEL is "a colorless liquid of sweetish odor, very poisonous if absorbed through the skin, resulting in lead poisoning almost immediately." This statement was denied repeatedly by the principals over the years and in the Ethyl Corporation's authorized history, published nearly sixty years later.
On October 22, 1924, workers at Standard Oil’s TEL plant in Bayway, New Jersey, began to get sick. By October 31, five had died, and at least 35 others were hospitalized. “The patient becomes violently maniacal, shouting, leaping from the bed, smashing furniture and acting as if in delirium tremens; morphine only accentuates the symptoms.… In two fatal cases, the body temperature rose to 110 degrees just before death occurred.” These deaths made the front page of The New York Times.
GM, DuPont, Kettering, and Midgley also knew that lead in gasoline might pollute the air and roadways. In December 1922 the US Surgeon General, H.S. Cumming, wrote Pierre du Pont:
"Inasmuch as it is understood that when employed in gasoline engines, this substance will add a finely divided and nondiffusible form of lead to exhaust gases, and furthermore, since lead poisoning in human beings is of the cumulative type resulting frequently from the daily intake of minute quantities, it seems pertinent to inquire whether there might not be a decided health hazard associated with the extensive use of lead tetraethyl in engines."
Midgley wrote that the question "had been given very serious consideration... no actual experimental data has been taken." Yet, he assured the Surgeon General, "the average street will probably be so free from lead that it will be impossible to detect it or its absorption."
He was fond of washing his hands thoroughly in tetraethyl lead and drying them on his handkerchief to demonstrate its safety before the public. "I'm not taking any chance whatever," he said. "Nor would I take any chance doing that every day." He was selling his product and he was good at it. His boss, Charles Kettering, appreciated him for it:
After the discovery of tetraethyl lead and the development of a satisfactory antiknock compound containing it, Midgley went to work on the job of introducing the new product to the public, an endeavor in which he met with, and finally overcame, many obstacles and much opposition. It was thus in his years of work on the antiknock problem that Midgley demonstrated unusual talents in all three of the important phases of industrial research: first, in original investigation or invention; second, in development or in conversion to the stage of practical usefulness; and, third, in selling the new thing to the public—or in some instances to management first....
Lead was phased out of gasoline beginning in 1975 and was largely gone from the market by 1986. It was not eliminated because of its toxicity. It was removed from gasoline because it fouled catalytic convertors. The Department of Health and Human Services reported that blood-lead levels in Americans aged 1-74 declined 78 percent between 1978 and 1991. In children aged 1-5, who are most affected by lead, blood-lead levels decreased 76 percent, from 15.0 to 3.6 mcg/dl. The percentage of children with blood-lead levels greater than or equal to 10 micrograms per deciliter declined from 88 percent to 9 percent. In New York City, before the US lead phaseout began, 30,000 out of 100,000 New York City children tested had elevated lead levels; after the phaseout was complete, it was only 1,500 of 100,000 who had such high levels. However, a 1992 article in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that the average blood-lead levels for pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America was 625 times lower than the current "safe" level of 10 mcg/dl.
Thomas Midgley won many scientific awards, had wide influence, and made a more than comfortable living from his inventions but contracted polio when he was 51. Like FDR, with whom he corresponded, he lost the use of his legs. Ever inventive, he designed a series of ropes and pulleys which allowed him to get from his bed to the bathroom or his home office on his own. On November 2, 1944, Midgley got tangled in those ropes and strangled himself.
Thomas Midgley Jr is the first geoengineer and, no matter how smart or diligent he was, he did it ignorantly, accidentally, and badly. We are still living with the consequences of his inventions and will for many, many years to come. One of the problems with geoengineering is that once you start, you have to keep doing it. Thomas Midgley, Charles Kettering, General Motors, DuPont, and many other corporations and individuals sent us down this road. They were all very smart people who knew how to make things and money. We all bought into it but now we have to do better. We need to become wise people who know how to repair ecological systems on a global scale. As a result of two hundred years of industrial production, we have to re-terraform the Earth for our own health, safety, and survival.
I first read of Midgley in The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth by Dianne Dumanoski (NY: Crown Publishers, 2009; ISBN 978-0-307-39607-5)
"The Secret History of Lead" by Jamie Lincoln Kitman Nation magazine March 20, 2000 - http://www.thenation.com/... - is a classic article and shows that the corporate response to the toxicity of TEL was the model for many of the other campaigns to protect profits over human lives.
"Thomas Midgley and the Law of Unintended Consequences" - http://www.americanheritage.com/... - for which Midgley is a prime example.
"The Impact of Refrigeration" - http://www.history-magazine.com/...
Norbert Wiener's novel The Tempter is a good description of how engineering and industrial research become public relations and marketing. Wiener, a mathematician and the founder of cybernetics, wrote about the process from the inside out, covering the same time period in which Midgley flourished.
crossposted to eurotribune.com