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Thomas Midgley: Inventor of Freon & Leaded Gas

From: William S. Hammack
Series: Stories of Technology
Length: 02:35

Two of the greatest environmental threats of the twentieth century - leaded gas and freon - were the work of a single man named Thomas Midgley. His intent was to help the world. Read the full description.

Default-piece-image-2 In 1921 Midgley worked to get rid of engine knock, which wasted fuel, something scarce at the time. He systematically tested compounds until he hit upon tetraethyl lead. This compound met his goal of increasing fuel conservation: With his lead additive, two gallons would go as far as three gallons without an additive. In fact, despised as lead gas is today, over the twenty-five years we used it, leaded gas saved about a billion barrels of oil. After this success, Midgley worked on improving refrigerators and air conditioners. At the time, a refrigerator was a dangerous thing because it used toxic, flammable chemicals. Midgley found a replacement for these nasty chemicals: CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, what we now call "freons." Today, it strikes us as the most toxic thing in the world. Yet its lack of toxicity and flammability is what attracted Midgley to it. 

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Piece Description

In 1921 Midgley worked to get rid of engine knock, which wasted fuel, something scarce at the time. He systematically tested compounds until he hit upon tetraethyl lead. This compound met his goal of increasing fuel conservation: With his lead additive, two gallons would go as far as three gallons without an additive. In fact, despised as lead gas is today, over the twenty-five years we used it, leaded gas saved about a billion barrels of oil. After this success, Midgley worked on improving refrigerators and air conditioners. At the time, a refrigerator was a dangerous thing because it used toxic, flammable chemicals. Midgley found a replacement for these nasty chemicals: CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, what we now call "freons." Today, it strikes us as the most toxic thing in the world. Yet its lack of toxicity and flammability is what attracted Midgley to it. 

Broadcast History

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Transcript

Two of the greatest environmental threats of the twentieth century - leaded gas and freon - were the work of a single man named Thomas Midgley. Because of these two inventions, a historian described Midgley as having "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth history."
In 1921 Thomas Midgley worked as an engineer in the General Motors research labs. His project was to get rid of engine knock - that's when the fuel doesn't burn evenly and makes the motor rattle. Engine knock wasted fuel, something scarce at the time.

Midgley knew the solution was some kind of additive to the fuel. So, he went on what he called a "scientific fox hunt." It was a method he developed as a young man. In school, he and a teammate decided to find out what would make a spitball curve the best. They carefully tested substances, until they came across slippery-elm bark. Midgley used...
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Related Website

http://www.engineerguy.com