Sunday, April 17, 2011

"A Greater Impact On The Environment Than Any Other Single Organism In History"

And it wasn't a good impact.

Back in the twenties, there were two difficult problems plaguing the auto and consumer goods industries in general and General Motors in particular: one was the tendancy of gasoline to burn too quickly and cause car engines to "knock", and the other was the ironic habit that refrigerator coolants had of catching fire and burning up the refrigerator.

General Motors subsidiary Dayton Research Labs put a certain Thomas Midgley jr, Cornell graduate in mechanical engineering, on the case. In 1922 he found that tetraethyl lead would do the trick. The problem, of course, is that lead is poisonous. GM marketed the additive under the deceitful brand name 'Ethyl', and set about fending off critics who pointed out the obvious. In the meantime, Midgley quietly took a years vacation during 1923 to recover from lead poisoning.

But the controversy wouldn't end. At the various plants that GM set up to produce the additive, there were numerous cases of hallucinations, insanity, and deaths due to lead poisoning. In Oct 1924, Midgley himself tried to put an end to the bad press by staging a public demonstration where he poured tetraethyl lead over his hands and then put the bottle under his nose and inhaled the fumes for 60 seconds, declaring that he could do this every day without harm.

He then quietly took another year's vacation to recover from the effects of this demonstration.

The next project was refrigerants. Compounds used at the time included ammonia, cloromethane, propane, and sulfur dioxide. Midgley and his team came up with the idea of combining fluorine with hydrocarbons creating dichlorofluoromethane, the first chlorofluorocarbon. The idea was to exploit the volatility of fluorine needed for refrigeration, but bond it to carbons for stability. This was marketed as 'Freon'. As a moral matter, one has to give Midgley a pass here, since it wasn't at all clear at the time that CFCs would damage the ozone layer and eventually be banned.

Midgley received a number of awards for his work, but fate was not done with him. In 1940, at the age of 51, Midgley contracted severe polio. He rigged up a system of "strings and pulleys" to help others lift him out of bed, but met his fate at the age of 55 when he became entangled in the device and strangled.

It is still possible to believe in the unqualified advance of technology and science, but it is clear now that often a technological solution causes almost as many problems as it solves. Some historians now even cast the Neolithic Revolution - the invention of farming - as an emergency stopgap measure that took on a life of its own, causing human populations to grow out of control. Clearly, things like atomic energy and automobiles are not unambiguous technological wins. Thomas Midgley's life reads like a parable of that phenomenon. In spades.

(p.s. the quote used as the title is from environmental historian J.R. McNeil)

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