Lord, we ask forgiveness for the sins of our brother Thomas Midgley. Because if it wasn’t tragic in its own way, his story would turn out to be almost comical.
Thomas Midgley was an inventor, but in spite of his efforts and his good will, his creations always and inevitably turned out to be lethal. According to environmental historian J.R. McNeill, he “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history”.
Hired in 1916 by a research laboratory controlled by General Motors, he soon discovered the many virtues of adding tetraethyl lead (TEL) to petrol. Engines suddenly became more efficient, more quiet, more long-lasting. General Motors advertised his patent far and wide, and so did oil companies; our Thomas Midgley went so far as to obtain a prestigious medal.
Too bad. Too bad that more and more people involved in the production process got poisoned (fifteen of the sick people died within just a year), and Midgley himself ended up half asphyxiated; petrol with addition of TEL actually released enormous quantities of inorganic lead in the atmosphere, and the overall effects of such a pollution became very serious over time.
In 1930 General Motors decided to entrust Midgley with a completely different job, apparently more innocuous. He was charged to study a new cooling substance for home refrigerators. Therefore, after the poisonous TEL, Midgley discovered chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) and had them commercialized. The CFC were used not only in refrigerators but also in air conditioners, hair sprays, nebulizers, solvents and the like. Midgley was awarded another couple of medals for his outstanding outcomes.
Too bad. Too bad, once again, that his chlorofluorocarbons were so polluting that over time they became the main cause of the notorious “ozone hole”. However, it has to be said, this would have been discovered only after thirty years.
But filling the atmosphere with lead, increasing the greenhouse effect and reducing the planet’s ozone layer was not enough for Midgley, who allowed himself a last invention. Suffering from poliomyelitis, he planned a brilliant and very intricate system of pulleys, springs, ropes and elastic bands in order to get up from bed on his own.
Too bad. Too bad that Midgley was strangled in his sleep by his ingenious device and died on the 2nd November 1944.