No Individual May Have Hurt the Planet More Than Him

Thomas Midgley Jr. invented leaded gas and Freon with the best of intentions
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 19, 2023 11:00 AM CDT
No Individual May Have Hurt the Planet More Than Him
In this 1940 photo, Thomas Midgley Jr., right, chairman of the Board of American Chemical Society, demonstrates the original Morse telegraph machine to Conway P. Coe, US commissioner of patents, in Washington, DC.   (AP Photo)

Thomas Midgely Jr. was by all accounts a brilliant American scientist who died in the 1940s. He also just happens to have a remarkable claim to fame, or infamy, as laid out by Steven Johnson in the New York Times Magazine: "There may be no other single person in history who did as much damage to human health and the planet, all with the best of intentions as an inventor." The reason lies in his two world-changing inventions a century ago: leaded gasoline and Freon. Both solved vexing technological problems of the day—leaded gas marketed as Ethyl helped cars run more efficiently; Freon improved electric refrigerators, but it also marked "the first commercial use of the chlorofluorocarbons that would create a hole in the ozone layer," writes Johnson.

The story details the origins of both inventions, and the "deadly secondary effects on a global scale" that accompanied each. It also lays out what lessons we might draw from Midgely's work today in regard to the long-term consequences of our decisions. "Will seemingly harmless G.M.O.s (genetically modified organisms) bring about secondary effects that become visible only to future generations? Will early research into nanoscale materials ultimately allow terrorists to unleash killer nanobots in urban centers?" But the main focus is Midgely himself, including his death in middle age. After contracting polio and becoming paralyzed from the waist down, Midgely invented a mechanized harness-and-pulley system for his wheelchair. After a few years, however, he used the device to take his own life. Read the full story. (Or check out other notable longform stories.)

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