The Brilliant Inventor Who Made Two of History’s Biggest Mistakes

Here is a brief excerpt from an article by Steven Johnson for The New York Times. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain information about special subscription rates, please click here.

Credit: Photo illustration by Cristiana Couceiro

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A century ago, Thomas Midgley Jr. was responsible for two phenomenally destructive innovations. What can we learn from them today?

It was said that Thomas Midgley Jr. had the finest lawn in America. Golf-club chairmen from across the Midwest would visit his estate on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, purely to admire the grounds; the Scott Seed Company eventually put an image of Midgley’s lawn on its letterhead. Midgley cultivated his acres of grass with the same compulsive innovation that characterized his entire career. He installed a wind gauge on the roof that would sound an alarm in his bedroom, alerting him whenever the lawn risked being desiccated by a breeze. Fifty years before the arrival of smart-home devices, Midgley wired up the rotary telephone in his bedroom so that a few spins of the dial would operate the sprinklers.

In the fall of 1940, at age 51, Midgley contracted polio, and the dashing, charismatic inventor soon found himself in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. At first he took on his disability with the same ingenuity that he applied to maintaining his legendary lawn, analyzing the problem and devising a novel solution to it — in this case, a mechanized harness with pulleys attached to his bed, allowing him to clamber into his wheelchair each morning without assistance. At the time, the contraption seemed emblematic of everything Midgley had stood for in his career as an inventor: determined, innovative thinking that took on a seemingly intractable challenge and somehow found a way around it.

Or at least it seemed like that until the morning of Nov. 2, 1944, when Midgley was found dead in his bedroom. The public was told he had been accidentally strangled to death by his own invention. Privately, his death was ruled a suicide. Either way, the machine he designed had become the instrument of his death.

Midgley was laid to rest as a brilliant American maverick of the first order. Newspapers ran eulogies recounting the heroic inventions he brought into the world, breakthroughs that advanced two of the most important technological revolutions of the age: automobiles and refrigeration. “The world has lost a truly great citizen in Mr. Midgley’s death,” Orville Wright declared. “I have been proud to call him friend.” But the dark story line of Midgley’s demise — the inventor killed by his own invention! — would take an even darker turn in the decades that followed. While The Times praised him as “one of the nation’s outstanding chemists” in its obituary, today Midgley is best known for the terrible consequences of that chemistry, thanks to the stretch of his career from 1922 to 1928, during which he managed to invent leaded gasoline and also develop the first commercial use of the chlorofluorocarbons that would create a hole in the ozone layer.

Each of these innovations offered a brilliant solution to an urgent technological problem of the era: making automobiles more efficient, producing a safer refrigerant. But each turned out to have deadly secondary effects on a global scale. Indeed, 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.

What should we make of the disquieting career of Thomas Midgley Jr.? There are material reasons for revisiting his story now, beyond the one accidental rhyme of history: the centennial of leaded gasoline’s first appearance on the market in 1923. That might seem like the distant past, but the truth is we are still living with the consequences of Midgley’s innovations. This year, the United Nations released an encouraging study reporting that the ozone layer was indeed on track to fully recover from the damage caused by Midgley’s chlorofluorocarbons — but not for another 40 years.

The arc of Midgley’s life points to a debate that has intensified in recent years, which can be boiled down to this: As we make decisions today, how much should we worry about consequences that might take decades or centuries to emerge? 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?

Midgley’s innovations — particularly the chlorofluorocarbons — seemed like brilliant ideas at the time, but 50 years taught us otherwise. Pondering Midgley and his legacy forces us to wrestle with the core questions at the heart of “longtermism,” as the debate over long-term thinking has come to be called: What is the right time horizon for anticipating potential threats? Does focusing on speculative futures distract us from the undeniable needs of the present moment? And Midgley’s story poses a crucial question for a culture, like ours, dominated by market-driven invention: How do we best bring new things into the world when we recognize, by definition, that their long-term consequences are unknowable?

Invention was in Midgley’s blood. His father was a lifelong tinkerer who made meaningful contributions to the early design of automobile tires. In the 1860s, his maternal grandfather, James Emerson, patented a number of improvements to circular saws and other tools. As a teenager growing up in Columbus, Midgley showed early promise in deploying novel chemical compounds for practical ends, using an extract from the bark of an elm tree as a substitute for human saliva while throwing spitballs on the baseball field. A high school chemistry class inaugurated what would prove to be a lifelong obsession with the periodic table, which then was rapidly being expanded thanks to early-20th-century discoveries in physics and chemistry. For most of his professional career, he carried a copy of the table in his pocket. The spatial arrangement of the elements on the page would help inspire his two most significant ideas.

After graduating from Cornell in 1911 with a degree in mechanical engineering, Midgley moved to Dayton, Ohio — arguably the leading innovation hub in the country at the time. History generally remembers Dayton for the Wright brothers, who sketched out their plans for the Kitty Hawk flight there, but the original attraction that drew inventors to the city was an unlikely one: the cash register, which for the first time enabled store owners to automate the record of transactions — and prevent employee theft. By the time Midgley joined the National Cash Register company in 1911, it had become a powerhouse, selling hundreds of thousands of machines around the world. It was there that Midgley first began hearing stories about Charles Kettering, who devised NCR’s mechanized system for clerks to run credit checks on customers directly from the sales floor, along with the first cash register to run on electric power.

Firms like NCR had begun experimenting with a new organizational unit, the research lab, in the spirit of the polymathic “muckers” whom Thomas Edison had assembled at his plant in Menlo Park, N.J. A few years after joining NCR, Kettering turned his attention to the emerging technology of the automobile, forming his own independent research lab known as Delco, short for Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, in 1909. There he concocted a device that proved crucial in transforming automobiles from a hobbyist’s pursuit to a mainstream technology: the electric ignition system. (Before Kettering’s breakthrough, automobiles had to be started with an unwieldy — and sometimes dangerous — hand crank, which required significant physical force to operate.) By 1916, Delco had been acquired by the corporation that would become General Motors, where Kettering would go on to work for the rest of his career.

Shortly after the acquisition, Midgley applied for a job in Kettering’s lab and was hired immediately. He was 27; Kettering was 40. After finishing a minor project that commenced before his arrival, Midgley walked into Kettering’s office one day and asked, “What do you want me to do next, Boss?” Kettering wrote after Midgley’s death. “That simple question and the answer to it turned out to be the beginning of a great adventure in the life of a most versatile man.”

The technical riddle Kettering tasked Midgley with solving was one of the few remaining impasses keeping the automobile from mass adoption: engine knock.

As the name implies, for the automobile passenger, engine knock was not just a sound but a bodily sensation. “Driving up a hill made valves rattle, cylinder heads knock, the gearbox vibrate and the engine suddenly lose power,” Sharon Bertsch McGrayne writes in her excellent history of modern chemistry, “Prometheans in the Lab.” The problem was made all the more mysterious by the fact that no one had any idea what was causing it. (“We don’t even know what makes an automobile run,” Kettering admitted at one point.) In a sense, the question that Kettering and Midgley set out to solve was figuring out whether knock was an inevitable secondary effect of a gas-powered engine, or whether it could be engineered out of the system.

To investigate the phenomenon, Midgley devised a miniature camera, optimized for high-speed images. The footage he eventually shot revealed that fuel inside the cylinders was igniting too abruptly, creating a surge of pressure. The unpleasant vibrations passengers were feeling reflected the fundamental fact that energy was being wasted: rattling the bones of the car’s occupants instead of driving the pistons.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Steven Johnson is the author, most recently, of “Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer.” He also writes the newsletter Adjacent Possible. Cristiana Couceiro is an illustrator and a designer in Portugal. She is known for her retro-inspired collages.

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