Thomas Midgley, Jr.

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Thomas Midgley, Jr. (May 18, 1889 – November 2, 1944) was an American mechanical engineer and chemist. Midgely was a key figure in a team of chemists, led by Charles F. Kettering, that developed the tetraethyllead (TEL) additive to gasoline as well as some of the first chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Over the course of his career, Midgely was granted over a hundred patents. While lauded for his scientific contributions during his lifetime, the negative environmental impacts of some of Midgley's innovations have considerably tarnished his legacy.

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Early life

Midgley was born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, to a father who was also an inventor. He grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and graduated from Cornell University in 1911 with a degree in mechanical engineering.[1]

Development of leaded gasoline

Midgley began working at General Motors in 1916. In December 1921, while working under the direction of Kettering at Dayton Research Laboratories, a subsidiary of General Motors, Midgley discovered that the addition of TEL to gasoline prevented internal combustion engines from "knocking". The company named the substance "Ethyl", avoiding all mention of lead in reports and advertising. Oil companies and automobile manufacturers, especially General Motors which owned the patent jointly filed by Kettering and Midgley, promoted the TEL additive as a superior alternative to ethanol or ethanol-blended fuels, on which they could make very little profit.[2] In December 1922, the American Chemical Society awarded Midgley the 1923 Nichols Medal for the "Use of Anti-Knock Compounds in Motor Fuels".[3] This was the first of several major awards he earned during his career.[1]

In 1923, Midgley took a prolonged vacation to cure himself of lead poisoning. "After about a year's work in organic lead," he wrote in January 1923, "I find that my lungs have been affected and that it is necessary to drop all work and get a large supply of fresh air." He went to Miami, Florida for convalescence.[4]

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