Top 5 Science Fail: Number 1 – Thomas Midgely Jr and Planet Earth

So here it is, the number 1 fail. I chose the career of one particular scientist for this, and I think you will see why. To see the rest of the top 5 click below:

Number 5

Number 4

Number 3

Number 2

Number 1: Thomas Midgely Jr. and Planet Earth

As we go through our lives most of us as individuals will have minimal net affect on our planetary ecosystem.  Maybe some will rise to high positions in companies where the decisions made might have a more substantial impact. But, none of us are likely to have quite such a big affect as Thomas Midgely Jr.

Thomas Midgley Jr.

Born in the state of Pennsylvania in 1889 he was a Chemist and Mechanical Engineer, who in 1916 joined the General Motors company (GM). At the time Midgely joined the company one of the key problems facing car manufacturers was ‘engine knocking’, which occurs when the petrol auto-ignites in the engine damaging it. Midgely realised that if you put lead related compounds into the petrol then this eradicated the problem. As a result of his discovery adding tetra-ethyl lead (TEL) to petrol become common practice. However, problems began to emerge as workers and researchers including Midgely became ill with lead poisoning. Culminating in Midgely holding a conference to defend his work in 1924. To show how safe TEL was he poured it all over his hands and spent 60 seconds inhaling its fumes. He spent the next year recovering from lead poisoning due to this stunt (which was kept quiet from the media).

Lead poisoning due to TEL was a large global problem and it wasn’t until the 70/80’s that leaded petrol began to be phased out. This discovery alone would probably have been enough to have gotten Midgely on this list. However, Midgely also helped make another discovery which has helped him claim the top stop.

In the 1920’s whilst still working for GM he was asked to find a replacement to the toxic and flammable refrigeration compounds (such as ammonia) which were at the time being used. This could have brought about redemption for Midgely. He and his team focused on the halogens due to their volatility and inertia. The decided to combine fluorine with hydrocarbons, and in 1930 created Freon, the worlds first chloro-flouro-carbon (CFC).

The team were delighted with their discovery. Midgely, echoing his TEL display,  demonstrated its capabilities by inhaling it and then blowing out a candle. Midgely received awards for his discovery and CFCs replaced the existing refrigerants in several usages.

Tetra-ethyl lead (TEL) containing petrol

It wasn’t until the 1980’s that people began to realise that the CFCs were breaking down in the atmosphere and through free-radical action were destroying the O-zone layer. By this time Midgely had long been dead, he contracted polio in 1940 and invested a system of pulleys and ropes to enable him to get out of bed. This invention backfired on him personally as one day he became entangled in the ropes and suffocated.

Midgely’s inventions have been summed up particularly well by JR McNeill an environmental historian who said that Midgely ‘had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history’.

I hope that you have enjoyed my list of Top 5 Science Fails, if you disagree with any of my selections or have any more you think I should know about feel free to comment below.

4 thoughts on “Top 5 Science Fail: Number 1 – Thomas Midgely Jr and Planet Earth

  1. Pingback: Sunday Sprawl: It’s Australia? « David Robertson

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Top 5 Science Fail: Number 1 – Thomas Midgely Jr and Planet Earth « B Good Science Blog --

  3. Affect and effect are two words that are commonly confused.

    “Affect” is usually a verb meaning “to influence”.

    The drug did not affect the disease.

    “Effect” is usually a noun meaning “result”.

    The drug has many adverse side effects.

    “Effect” can also be used as a verb meaning “to bring about”.

    The present government effected many positive changes.

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