Thomas Midgley And The Law Of Unintended Consequences
He never trained as a chemist, yet he became one of America’s greatest, and his crowning achievement brought the world huge benefits and an environmental disaster
Spring 2002 | Volume 17, Issue 4
WHEN THE ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS WON THE WORLD SERIES LAST fall, team officials rushed to thank everyone who had contributed, from the players to the owner to government officials and fans. No one mentioned the name of Thomas Midgley, yet without him, there might well be no Diamondbacks, for his two great discoveries made today’s Southwest possible. Only the hardiest souls braved Arizona’s desert heat until Midgley’s development of Freon made air conditioning commonplace. Similarly, his leaded gasoline allowed the high-performance engines that the region’s long distances and tall mountains demand. Before him, air conditioning was reserved for a few large public buildings and wealthy homeowners; owning a refrigerator required a mass of bulky and dangerous machinery in the basement; and cars couldn’t climb hills or hit top speed without sputtering dangerously.
Decades after he died, a new generation of scientists would learn that both of Midgley’s great discoveries had come with great costs attached. The gasoline that had revved up America’s cars was also dumping lead into the atmosphere, and the chlorofluorocarbons that had cooled the nation and chilled its food were also destroying the earth’s protection against the sun’s rays.
During World War II Time magazine could accurately describe him as “big, famed Thomas Midgley Jr.,” but today he is obscure. No full-length biography of him exists, and an impression of the man must be patched together from the reminiscences of those who knew him. He liked reciting “Casey at the Bat,” he stood in the wings at the Metropolitan Opera making recordings on an apparatus of his own design, he sent out Christmas cards filled with original light verse of no great merit, he financed the educations of 17 undergraduates, and in the 1920s he and his colleagues formed a drinking club whose motto, Temperance Despite Prohibition, was toasted with gin.
Throughout his career he labored in the shadow of Charles Kettering, the revered research chief of General Motors. Kettering was famous for creating the automobile self-starter, the high-compression engine, the modern diesel locomotive, and many other essential features of contemporary life. But he often said that his greatest discovery was Thomas Midgley.
The object of Kettering’s regard was born on May 18, 1889, in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. He was the only child of a businessman father who later invented the demountable tire rim. At the time of Thomas’s birth, Thomas, Sr., was the superintendent of a steel company in Beaver Falls; he subsequently entered the wire-goods business there. Midgley’s mother came from an inventive family as well: Her father, James Ezekiel Emerson, invented circular and band saws with removable teeth.
In 1896 the family moved to Columbus, Ohio, where Thomas’s father managed a bicycle factory and later manufactured wheels and tires. For the rest of his life, Columbus would be Midgley’s principal home. He did well in school and played on his high school football and baseball teams. In an early demonstration of his flair for research, he and a teammate tested a variety of substances to see which would make a spitball curve best. They finally settled on slipperyelm bark.
After two years at a Connecticut prep school, he went on to Cornell University, where he majored in mechanical engineering. He planned a career as an inventor but as yet had no particular interest in chemistry. Two survey courses were all the formal chemical instruction he would ever receive.
He graduated from Cornell in 1911, and in August of that year he married Carrie May Reynolds of Delaware, Ohio. The couple would have two children. He took a job as a draftsman and designer with the National Cash Register Company, in Dayton, Ohio. At the time, NCR was a leading innovator in retail and accounting equipment and one of a handful of American firms with well-funded industrial-research laboratories. Charles Kettering had been in charge of NCR’s famed Inventions Department No. 3 until 1909, when he left to found his own firm, the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (known as Delco), and focus on automotive research.
After a year at NCR, Midgley returned to Columbus and spent four years in charge of research for his father’s tire company. In 1916 Kettering hired Midgley to work in Delco’s research laboratory. One of the earliest problems he was assigned was engine knock, a troublesome condition that was and is characterized by an annoying “putt-putt” or “ping” sound, overheating, jerky motion, and sluggish response. The problem gets worse when a strain is put upon the engine, such as when accelerating or climbing a hill. Besides making noise and increasing pollution, knock damages engines and saps their efficiency. And the higher the engine’s compression, the worse the problem gets.
Kettering’s original interest in knock, however, was not prompted entirely by automobiles. Another factor was his firm’s Delco-Light engine, a freestanding, single-cylinder, gasoline-powered machine used mostly by farmers to generate household electricity. Because of insurance considerations and local ordinances restricting the home storage of gasoline, Kettering wanted to know if the Delco-Light could run on kerosene as well. When his staff tried it, they couldn’t get the engine to stop knocking.