Today, an inventor transforms us. He also threatens
our lives. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
You may recognize two lines
from a political poem by James Russell Lowell: "New
occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good
uncouth." So it is with some inventions. Meet
Thomas Midgley. He gave us two ancient goods
that've grown uncouth.
Born in 1889, Midgely did an engineering Ph.D. at
Cornell. In 1916 he joined Charles Kettering's Lab
in Dayton, Ohio.
Kettering was marketing a small kerosene engine to
drive home-lighting systems on farms. It knocked
horribly. Midgely guessed that dyeing the fuel red
might cause it to absorb more heat and knock less.
That was terrible physics. But when he doped the
kerosene with iodine, there was less knock.
Midgely set out to find a better antiknock
additive. First he wasted time with a hit-and-miss
search. Then he began working systematically
through the periodic table. After six years he
found that tetraethyl lead worked beautifully.
So Ethyl gasoline swept America. Questions about
its toxicity came up right away and lingered for
sixty years. Finally, we introduced the new
catalytic converters to combat other pollutants.
They strangled on leaded gas, so we gave up lead.
It certainly had been a health threat. But it also
allowed the modern auto engine to evolve.
Midgely took only three days to make his second
great contribution. Early refrigeration units used
nasty chemicals like sulfur dioxide and ammonia. We
needed something better. Midgely went back to the
periodic table and invented dichloroflouromethane
-- the first of the Freons.
The Freons aren't toxic at all. So they served us
long and well. Then we found they were eating up
our protective ozone layer. Now the survival of
Earth depends on giving up Freons. We're replacing
them with new chlorine-free chemicals.
So, Midgley changed American life twice. Both times
his inventive heritage was life-threatening. And
his final invention was really death-dealing, as it
He contracted polio when he was 51. As he lost the
use of his legs, he invented a harness to get
himself out of bed. On Nov. 2, 1944, he tangled in
the gadget. It strangled him.
Midgely studied history, loved music, wrote poetry.
His inventions shaped and changed us. Then we had
to leave them behind. So we weigh his life.
Kettering boasted that Midgley was his own greatest
discovery. He might well have been.
Change is the only changeless thing in our lives.
Midgley rode change. Now we forget leaded gas and
Freon. But let's remember Midgely. Let's remember
the processes that've made us.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Kauffman, G.B., Midgley: Saint or Serpent?
Chemtech, December 1989, pp. 717-725.
For the Russell poem, see, e.g., Hymn No. 519
(Ton-y-bot-tel) in the 1940 Episcopal
Hymnal. Other churches have also used this hymn
setting of the text. However, the text is now
falling out of favor since it so patently reflects
specific 19th-century politics.
For more on Midgely see the following website:
This episode is from 1992. In 2009, Steven Karty writes to suggest that
I should've been less critical of Midgely's invention of Freon and leaded gasoline.
Freon substitutes are less efficient his Freon, and might well be exacting comparable
costs to the environment by requiring more energy to run cooling units. And one needs
to look critically at the chemicals that have replaced lead to prevent engine knock.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Episode | Search Episodes |