How Thomas Midgley, Jr gave cars zoom, homes A/C, saved countless lives, helped win the war and almost doomed us all.
By Mark Martel
“Think global, act local” is an environmentalist catchphrase. But what if the reverse should happen?
In the dozen years Thomas Midgley, Jr. lived in Dayton he revolutionized two industries by inventing tetraethyl “leaded” gasoline and CFC refrigerants worth millions. “Ethyl” brand gas solved the pernicious problem of knock and helped gasoline engine dominate motoring for nearly a century. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) made refrigeration non-toxic and non-flammable, helping air-condition the world and bring life-saving vaccines to millions in the tropics.
For his work he won the top awards in chemistry and was named president of the American Chemical Society. But decades later both inventions proved perilous to billions of people. Midgley’s tragic death is often blamed on his final invention. But there may be more to the story.
As Midgley learned chemistry on the job he transitioned from random, brute force methods to predictive, strategic problem solving. His story highlights the peril and promise of “intelligent ignorance”, unintended consequences and the extremes of luck.
Tom Midgley arrived in Dayton, Ohio in 1916 with a young family to support, a cocky attitude, and no job. It was a different world than today with few protections for workers, consumers or the environment. But he knew he was good in his field of mechanical engineering. He’d spent a year at National Cash Register in Dayton before joining his father’s Columbus company to work on better tires for cars. When that business failed the son went on the hunt for a real opportunity, passing over safer choices. It became a pattern.
When the aggressive Midgley showed up in Dayton, inventor Charles Kettering first mistook him for a salesman. But he soon hired Midgley for one of the new companies he had spun off of the success of Delco. Kettering had struck it rich five years prior by inventing the electric starter for cars, but now some were blaming his Delco starters for engine knock.
If you imagine the wheezing, chugging, racket of an old-timey automobile—that was knock, and it was serious. Knock robbed cars of gas mileage, power and could even destroy an engine. It was a major roadblock to the gasoline engine overtaking cars powered by steam or electricity. Kettering wanted to solve the knock problem for the entire industry. Geologists had been predicting an oil shortage. The future might depend on some hybrid fuel that extended gasoline with additives like alcohol.
Kettering saw in Midgley the quality of “intelligent ignorance.” Sharp-minded but untrained in chemistry, Midgley was willing to try things the experts “knew” wouldn’t work, and so perhaps solve the impossible.
Immediately the two got incredibly lucky. They jury-rigged a contraption to photograph inside an engine as it ran, and the results confirmed Kett’s suspicion. The fuel wasn’t burning completely. Thus knock wasn’t the fault of his electric ignition, but the fault of the fuel itself. So what then? Outside in the cold, one of them noticed a trailing arbutus poking up through the snow. The red leaves absorbed enough of the sun’s heat to melt the surrounding snow. Maybe something red would help gasoline burn hotter? The only red substance in the supply cabinet was iodine, and against astounding odds it worked. Iodine reduced the knock substantially, though at the cost of heavy engine damage. Iodine was out of the question. But it had proved a cure for engine knock was possible.
Kettering started with a wide search. The fix for knock might require adding a small splash of something to gasoline, or a larger amount, like today’s 10% ethanol. As WWI began, Midgley was reassigned to improve aviation fuel for the Liberty Engine that would power American airplanes (see Colonel Deeds article). Midgley explored the large percentage route through mixtures of gasoline, kerosene, ethyl alcohol and other substances. He finally settled on 20% benzol and 80% cyclohexane, enabling higher engine compression—power.
After the war Midgley returned to the engine knock problem and his team followed both trails, using a trial and error method of testing whatever was on hand in a 1-cylinder Delco Light engine, an electric generator for farms. Due to fire rules it had to run on kerosene, and as a result it knocked violently, reducing compression and efficiency. So the tabletop device made an ideal test bed. They set out to try a compound of every element out there.
As a youth this brute force approach had helped Midgley perfect the spitball for baseball pitchers. He and a buddy tried all sorts of common substances until they found that slippery elm bark made pitches curve the most. The idea spread all through baseball. Solving knock started similarly, but countless chemical compounds were known to man. Over five years the team would slog through as many as 33,000 different additives.
But there were side benefits to the job. Working for Kettering meant joining his new Engineers Club of Dayton. Midgley is listed as a member for the 1918 opening of the Club building, and he probably remained a member even after moving to Columbus. Men from Delco and related Kettering enterprises would walk the few blocks for lunch at the club and share ideas around Boss Kett’s roundtable. Created so that technical men (the first woman joined a decade later) could “hunt together,” the club must have been the perfect environment for an aggressive extrovert like Midgley. He was known to spout a bit of his own poetry, and would prove an adept showman of his own inventions.
Midgley’s creativity showed one day when he dreamed up the idea of packaging an ice cube with frozen peas, to prove they had not melted during shipping. The idea became just one of his 100 patents.
Henry Ford had championed a gas-alcohol mixture to prevent knock. But with the new national Prohibition on booze, marketing a product that required vast amounts of alcohol might be a disaster. And even if that proved practical, anyone could enter the market and rob sales.
These concerns didn’t seem to stop Midgley and coworkers from imbibing. Speakeasy saloons dotted the downtown. A Midgley Valentine’s Day telegram to his wife read, “I’ve got whiskey, I’ve got wine, won’t you be my valentine?” At conventions he and Kettering were known to stir up some of the new screwdrivers. Midgley said, "I have always had a fondness for intelligent people. And the more we drink, the smarter we get." He reportedly made excellent gin.
The lab had trouble getting hold of alcohol for experiments. Yet before Prohibition would end in 1933, assistant Carroll Hochwalt was sitting on a patent for a quicker method to brew whiskey.
Midgley seemed convinced of his own indestructibility. Patent attorney Laurence Langner claimed Midgley “used to drink the Ethyl gas just to show his contempt for humanity,” and had a habit of testing out all kinds of chemicals on his own system. ”That man is full of floating benzene rings. I wonder how he manages to stay alive!” Langner had a love for the dramatic.
So did Midgley. In 1921 he drove to Indianapolis on a gasoline-ethanol mixture to dramatize how it raised engine compression. He was known to recite Casey at the Bat and his own poems, but the highest drama was to come.