This year marks the 100th anniversary of a benign-sounding automobile fuel, Ethyl, first being offered for sale in the U.S. at a filling station in Dayton, Ohio. (Dayton was home to Dayton Engineering Laboratories, or Delco, a subsidiary of General Motors that served as its research division.) It was hailed as a “gift of God” by a Standard Oil executive because it solved a major technical issue hampering a nascent automobile industry—engine knock. “Knocking” was the term used to describe the way engines stuttered and violently jerked when put under strain, typically while passing or going uphill—a persistent problem.
Comprising gasoline and the fuel-additive tetraethyl lead, Ethyl (leaded gasoline) was a hit, and within a year, General Motors, Standard Oil, and the DuPont Corp. had jointly formed the Ethyl Corp. to mass produce it. Combining lead with gasoline to produce this miraculous new, high-octane fuel was the brainchild of Thomas Midgley Jr., a bespectacled employee of Delco Labs.
Born on May 18, 1889, in Beaver Falls, Pa., Midgley had inventing in his blood. His maternal grandfather patented many designs related to circular saw blades (he invented the inserted-tooth saw blade used in sawmills). His father did work to improve the design of automobile tires in the early 1900s.
In 1916, Midgley was hired at Delco labs and was soon tasked with developing an effective yet inexpensive anti-knock additive for gasoline (at this point in time, it wasn’t clear whether automobiles would run on gasoline or clean-burning ethyl alcohol). Midgley worked tirelessly, testing everything from iodine to melted butter and eventually settling on tetraethyl lead (TEL) in 1921. TEL was cheap to produce and could be patented (as opposed to ethyl alcohol) and had the potential for enormous profits. And even though lead had been known to be a neurotoxin since Roman times (so, for some 2,000 years), Midgley and company turned a blind eye to the potential dangers of using TEL as a fuel additive.
The public was repeatedly told that Ethyl gasoline posed no health risks. Ever the showman, Midgley washed his hands with Ethyl fluid for reporters, stating that “he was not taking any chance whatever, in doing so.” (Apparently inventing wasn’t the only thing in his blood; a bout of acute lead poisoning caused Midgley to take an extended medical leave in 1923.) Within a decade of its first sale at that Ohio filling station, tetraethyl lead was in 90% of all gasoline sold in America. The Ethyl Corp. was highly lucrative, and by the 1950s, its profits would be in the billions.
Not to be undone, in 1925, Delco tasked Midgley with developing a safer alternative to the toxic refrigerants used by a home-refrigerator startup, Frigidaire, which had recently been acquired by GM. His team discovered a seemingly ideal nontoxic refrigerant, dichlorodifluoromethane (aka “Freon”). Invented in 1928, Freon helped turn Frigidaire into a household name. Decades later, scientists realized that Freon (as well as other chlorofluorocarbons) were destroying the Earth’s ozone layer. In his book, Something New Under the Sun, historian J. R. McNeill notes that Midgley, “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth’s history.”
In 1940, Midgley contracted polio. He died four years later when he became entangled in his last creation, a hoist system to lift himself in and out of bed.