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Thomas Midgley, Jr’s Innovation Strategies

By Mark Martel


Thomas Midgley Jr. left behind a fair amount of his personal philosophy in the form of poems and speeches.

Stick by your convictions—if you can back them up
In prep school his chemistry teacher introduced the periodic table as a gift from God. Midgley argued with him all year that the elements formed a regular order from random necessity. The continued debate helped ingrain the subject in his brain.

Go for the gusto
In one of his last poems Midgley said he “did a lot of living in a mighty little while.”

Try everything
From creating the perfect spitball for baseball to discovering the best anti-knock additive, Midgley was known to try the brute force method to test every possible solution. It worked for the spitball, and partial hits on the anti-knock quest yielded enough clues for Midgley to try his next method.

After testing everything under the sun to solve engine knock, Midgley knew that iodine, tellurium and selenium were partial answers. When he charted them on the periodic table, the elements literally pointed to lead as the ultimate answer. Sometimes you have to take a step back and look for hidden connections between the available clues.

Keep the faith
By some counts, over a five year period Midgley’s crew tested 33,000 compounds in their quest to solve knock. More than once he asked Boss Kett to be reassigned. But in the end, not giving up led to success.

Dramatize it
When Midgley had something to crow about, he pulled out the stops. To unveil tetraethyl lead to other chemists, he fired up a loud knocking, spluttering engine in the middle of Carnegie Hall. He then blew the barest whiff of tetraethyl lead at the carburetor, instantly silencing the knock. Years later when being presented the Society of Chemical Industry’s Perkin Medal, Midgley demonstrated how his new CFC refrigerant was fireproof and non-toxic by inhaling a lungful of the stuff to blow out a candle.

Ignore the experts—to a point
Boss Kett used Midgley’s “intelligent ignorance” to try things the experts “knew” wouldn’t work. But sometimes that expertise is the only guard against danger. Men die when facts are ignored.

Put the accent on youth
Stricken by polio, Midgley gave what became his farewell address to the American Chemical Society. In Accent on Youth, Midgley wrote of the need to capitalize on the energy and fresh ideas of newcomers. He suggested those over 40 step aside for younger creativity, since the great advances have been made by younger people. Little did he know it but even then a young geochemist named Clair Patterson in the Manhattan Project was developing the mass spectrometry skills that would prepare him to expose the hidden dangers of leaded gasoline.

Legacy of Midgley’s innovation methods--problem solving
Working outside his discipline
Failing faster to success
Aggressive, extrovert, showman—worked well with others but too eccentric for bean counters
Intelligent ignorance plus and minus
Industry transitioned from brute force methods to using more educated research teams
Dangers today of greater specialization and ignorance