Getting the lead out

Two lead-related thoughts on this Monday.

I am reading a book called A Short History of Nearly Everything. It’s written by Bill Bryson, who also wrote A Walk in the Woods, which I read about seven years ago and loved. This is a very different book. Bryson does not have a science background, but he attempts to understand the oldest, biggest questions of our universe and ourselves. He writes about time and space and chemistry and geology and psychology and some other ologies, and he does so in a way that is digestible for simple-minded folk like me. It’s a good read.

I was particularly drawn to a chapter on Thomas Midgley, Jr, who takes the title for the most important person of the 20th century that I had never heard of. This is a guy who led a fascinating life, but he made some unfortunate discoveries, the effects of which are still being felt today (and will continue to be felt forever).

In the early twentieth century, Midgley developed an interest in the industrial applications of chemistry. In 1921, while working for the General Motors Research Corporation in Dayton, Ohio, he investigated a compound called tetraethyl lead and discovered that it significantly reduced the juddering condition known as engine shock.

The world would have been a safer place without this discovery.

As you probably know, lead is a neurotoxin. If you get too much of it in your system, you’ll irreparably damage your brain and central nervous system. Even in 1921, most people knew that led was dangerous (even though it was found in many consumer products), but nothing gave it a greater and more lasting intimacy than its addition to gasoline. Which is exactly what Midgley did. And it worked.

Lead is terrible, yes, but it is easy to extract and very profitable to produce industrially. So in 1923 three of America’s largest corporations (General Motors, Du Pont, and Standard Oil of New Jersey) formed a joint enterprise called the Ethyl Corporation. Their goal – to produce as much tetraethyl lead as the world was willing to buy. This proved to be, like, a lot.

Shortly thereafter, productions workers began to exhibit some odd behaviors – confusion, insomnia, staggered gaits. Rumors circulated about the inherent dangers of this new product. The corporation denied any wrongdoing, and Midgley himself decided to hold a demonstration where he poured tetraethyl lead over his hands, then held a beaker of it to his nose for sixty seconds. He said he could repeat the procedure daily without harm. Of course, Midgley knew the perils of lead poisoning and never went near the stuff if he could help it.

But Midgley wasn’t done inventing terrible things. After the success of leaded gasoline, he turned to another technological problem of the 1920s. At the time, refrigerators were very risky because they used dangerous gases that sometimes leaked. Midgley set out to create a gas that was stable, nonflammable, noncorrosive, and safe to breathe. Bryson writes: With an instinct for the regrettable that was almost uncanny, he invented chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.

Yes, it is pretty amazing that the same man invented leaded gasoline and CFC’s.* Shortly after their invention, CFC’s went into production and found applications in everything from car air conditioners to hairsprays to deodorants. And then a few decades later people noticed that it was devouring the ozone in the atmosphere. Even then, it took a long, hellish campaign by scientists to get them out of the market (they were banned in 1974). Leaded gasoline was banned in 1986.

*If you think that is some bad fortune, then his death is the cherry on top. After becoming crippled with polio, Midgley invented a contraption involving a series of pulleys that automatically raised or turned him in bed. In 1944, he became entangled in the cords and suffocated.

Well, the bad thing about lead is that it lasts forever. Those of us alive today have about 625 times more lead in our blood than people did a century ago. And, lead is still released into the atmosphere every day (legally) from mining and smelting and other industrial activities. And, unfortunately, CFC’s last for about a century, so they’re still around too.

I guess the point is that Thomas Midgley had a profound, lasting impact on our lives and our planet. I mean, you could make the case that this man singlehandedly spearheaded global warming. I don’t think that was his intent, but, well, that’s what happened. Still, no one knows who he is. I don’t remember hearing about him in school. I think that’s too bad because it’s an interesting story.


Led Zeppelin won its first-ever grammy last night – best rock album for Celebration Day. At this point it’s more a lifetime achievement award for them. Their award-winning performance wasn’t even from the past year – it’s from their reunion concert in 2007. Still, I was going to write that it’s pretty awesome that we are now in 2014, and Led Zeppelin is still winning grammys … but then I learned that this is their first.

Well, history is full of these kind of things. Leonardo Dicaprio has never won an Oscar. Derek Jeter has never won an MVP. Until yesterday, Led Zeppelin had never won a Grammy. This doesn’t diminish their greatness.

Hopefully this will spark one last get together for the surviving trio, but that’s doubtful. They have played together once in the last 30 years. But one can hope.


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