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  • 10/31/2004

Thomas Midgley

(May 18, 1889 - November 2, 1944)

Thomas Midgley, Jr., was a clever American mechanical engineer turned chemist. He developed both the tetra-ethyl lead additive to gasoline and chloro-fluorocarbons (CFCs). While lauded at the time for his discoveries today his legacy is seen as far more mixed. One historian remarked that Midgley "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth history."

While working for General Motors he discovered that leaded-gasoline prevented internal combustion engines from "knocking". The difficulty is that this resulted in huge amounts of lead being added to the atmosphere causing health problems around the world. Workers producing the additive were even more greatly affected. In 1924 Midgley took a prolonged vacation from working to cure himself of lead poisoning — A fact he deliberately kept secret, holding a press conference to demonstrate the "safety" of contact with the substance

CFCs were introduced to make refrigerators safer by synthesizing chloro-fluorocarbon (CFC) compounds (also called "Freons") and substituting them for the variously poisonous or explosive substances previously used.

In aerosol spray cans and in medicine one of the major uses of CFCs is as safe inert propellants used in everything from metered dose inhalers (Asthma Inhalers) to deodorant. Since the adoption of the Montreal Protocol, by which major countries agreed to no longer produce CFCs, health services and pharmacological companies have been replacing these inhalers with devices that do not contain CFCs, and training patients in their use. The production of CFCs is banned in the developed world and is set to cease on the rest of the planet by 2010.

Thomas Midgley Jr. was a holder of over 170 patents. At the age of 51 he contracted Polio which left him severely disabled. To solve this problem he devised an elaborate system of strings and pulleys that would lift him from bed. In what must be one of the most ironic deaths in the history of science, Midgley was accidentally entangled in the ropes of this device and died of strangulation at the age of 55.

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Also see:

www.sciencedaily.com/encyclopedia/ thomas_midgley

www.timelinescience.org/resource/ students/midgley/trouble.htm

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