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Thomas Midgley

AKA Thomas Midgley, Jr.

Born: 18-May-1889
Birthplace: Beaver Falls, PA
Died: 2-Nov-1944
Location of death: Worthington, OH
Cause of death: Accident - Choking

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Chemist, Inventor

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Ethyl gasoline, Freon

Though he studied to be an engineer, Thomas Midgley's fame came as a chemist. Working for Charles F. Kettering at Delco, he was assigned to solve the mystery of engine knock, the persistent ping or putt-putt sound that characterized early internal-combustion engines. Midgley determined that the knocking sound was caused by an increase in pressure and temperature within the engine cylinders, and solved the problem not by changing the engine's design but by altering the chemical make-up of gasoline, adding a mix of adding tetraethyl lead and bromine extracted from seawater to invent "no-knock" or ethyl gasoline in 1921. Unfortunately, the lead compounds in ethyl gasoline proved toxic to the workers that produced them, killing at least eleven employees at oil refineries in the early 1920s. Midgley himself took an extended medical leave in 1924 due to lead poisoning, and he authored a paper on lead poison hazards in 1925. Lead additives in ethyl gasoline were subsequently shown to be a major pollutant, causing brain and blood disorders and, in children, antisocial behavior and lowered IQ. Midgley's ethyl compounds were removed from gasoline in the 1970s, after their effects became widely known.

In 1928 Midgley was transferred to Frigidaire (which was then, like Delco, a subsidiary of General Motors) where he was tasked with finding a safer yet affordable replacement for the refrigerants then being used, all of which were either toxic, flammable, or both. He devised dichlorodifluoromethane, a mixture of primarily chlorine, fluorine and carbon (chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs) which was trademarked as Freon, and became a common component in air conditioning, insect repellents, and refrigeration systems. Decades later, studies showed that Freon caused large-scale destruction of the planet's ozone layer, reducing humanity's protection from skin cancers and eye damage caused by ultraviolet radiation, and causing mutations in human DNA, weakening of the immune system, and other environmental damage. Freon leaks can also cause asphyxiation and death at higher concentrations, because its molecular structure displaces oxygen. As a result of these unexpected effects, most chemical configurations of Freon were banned and phased out by the 1980s. Ironically, long before this danger to the ozone layer was understood, Midgley wrote a paper in 1939 suggesting that the ozone layer could be manipulated to control climate.

Late in life Midgley contracted polio, and as the disease progressed he was left largely homebound. He designed a series of pulley mechanisms which were installed in his house, which allowed him to get from his bed to the bathroom or his home office without assistance. Like his more famous inventions, however, this ambulatory aid also presented an unexpected danger, and on 2 November 1944, Migley slipped and became tangled in the device's ropes, accidentally strangling himself.

Father: Thomas Midgley (inventor, b. 22-Oct-1860, d. 25-Dec-1934)
Mother: Hattie Lena Emerson Midgley (m. 16-Dec-1886, d. 1950)
Wife: Carrie May Reynolds Midgley (m. 3-Aug-1911, two children)
Daughter: Jane Midgley Lewis
Son: Thomas Midgley III (engineer)

    High School: Betts Academy, Stamford, CT (1907)
    University: Mechanical Engineering, Cornell University (1911)
    Administrator: Director, Research Foundation, Ohio State University (1940-44)

    National Inventors Hall of Fame
    Willard Gibbs Medal 1942
    Priestley Medal 1941
    Perkin Medal 1937
    Longstreth Medal 1925
    Nichols Medal 1922
    Dow Chemical VP Ethyl-Dow Chemical Co. (1933-40)
    DuPont VP Kinetic Chemicals (1930-33)
    Electrolux VP Frigidaire (1928-30)
    Ethyl Corporation VP (1924-28)
    General Motors Engineer, Delco Electronics (1916-24)
    NCR Draftsman (1911-12)
    American Association for the Advancement of Science
    American Chemical Society President (1944)
    American Institute of Chemical Engineers
    American Society for Testing and Materials
    National Academy of Sciences
    National Defense Research Committee
    National Inventors Council Vice Chairman (1942-43)
    Society of Automotive Engineers
    Alpha Chi Sigma Chemistry Fraternity
    Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society
    Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society
    Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society
    English Ancestry
    Risk Factors: Polio


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