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

Two innovations — Ethyl and Freon, conjured by one man [Thomas Midgley Jr.] presiding over a single laboratory during a span of roughly 10 years. Combined, the two products generated billions of dollars in revenue for the companies that manufactured them and provided countless ordinary consumers with new technology that improved the quality of their lives. In the case of Freon, the gas enabled another technology (refrigeration) that offered meaningful improvements to consumers in the form of food safety. And yet each product, in the end, turned out to be dangerous on an almost unimaginable scale.

The history of any major technological or industrial advance is inevitably shadowed by a less predictable history of unintended consequences and secondary effects — what economists sometimes call “externalities.” Sometimes those consequences are innocuous ones, or even beneficial. Gutenberg invents the printing press, and literacy rates rise, which causes a significant part of the reading public to require spectacles for the first time, which creates a surge of investment in lens-making across Europe, which leads to the invention of the telescope and the microscope. Oftentimes the secondary effects seem to belong to an entirely different sphere of society. When Willis Carrier hit upon the idea of air-conditioning, the technology was primarily intended for industrial use: ensuring cool, dry air for factories that required low-humidity environments. But once air-conditioning entered the home — thanks in part to Freon’s radical leap forward in safety — it touched off one of the largest migrations in the history of the United States, enabling the rise of metropolitan areas like Phoenix and Las Vegas that barely existed when Carrier first started tinkering with the idea in the early 1900s.

[..] the potential health threats of Ethyl were visible in the 1920s, unlike, say, the long-term effects of atmospheric carbon buildup in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The dark truth about Ethyl is that everyone involved in its creation had seen incontrovertible evidence that tetraethyl lead was shockingly harmful to humans. [..]

Perhaps the most damning evidence against Midgley and [founder of Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco) Charles] Kettering lies in the fact that both men were well aware that at least one potential alternative to tetraethyl lead existed: ethanol, which had many of the same antiknock properties as lead. But as Jamie Lincoln Kitman notes in “The Secret History of Lead”: “GM couldn’t dictate an infrastructure that could supply ethanol in the volumes that might be required. Equally troubling, any idiot with a still could make it at home, and in those days, many did.” On the face of it, ethyl alcohol would have seemed the far safer option, given what was known about lead as a poison and the unfolding tragedies at Deepwater and other plants. But you couldn’t patent alcohol. [..]

As with the fight over leaded gasoline, the industries involved in CFC production resisted efforts to reduce the presence of the gas in the atmosphere, but by the late 1980s, the evidence of potential harm had grown undeniable. (Unlike in the current debate over global warming, no mainstream political constituency emerged to challenge this consensus, other than the industry players who had a financial stake in continued CFC production.) In September 1987, representatives of 24 nations signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, establishing a timetable for the world to phase out production and consumption of CFCs, almost 60 years after Kettering told Midgley to figure out a solution to the refrigerant problem. It took a small team just a few days in a lab to address Kettering’s problem, but it took a global collaboration of scientists, corporations and politicians to repair the damage that their creation inadvertently unleashed on the world. [..]

CFCs actually did produce a chain reaction in the atmosphere, one that left unabated might well have transformed life on Earth as we know it. Whether Freon was “altogether without harmful effects on man or animals,” as Kettering once claimed, depended on the time scale you used. On the scale of years and decades, it most likely saved many lives: keeping food from spoiling, allowing vaccines to be stored and transported safely, reducing malaria deaths. On the scale of a century, though, it posed a significant threat to humanity itself. [..]

The dominant models of technological apocalypse in the 20th century were variations on the Manhattan Project: industrial-scale, government-controlled weapons of mass destruction, designed from the outset to kill in large numbers. But in the 21st century, the existential threats may well come from innovators working in Midgley’s mode, creating new dangers through the seemingly innocuous act of addressing consumer needs, only this time using CRISPR, or nanobots, or some new breakthrough no one has thought of yet. [..]

The rise of Ethyl was an old story: a private company’s reaping profits from a new innovation while socializing the costs of its unintended consequences and overriding the objections at the time through sheer commercial might. It was well established that lead was a health hazard; that the manufacture of Ethyl itself could have devastating effects on the human body and brain; that automobiles running on Ethyl were emitting some trace of lead into the atmosphere. The only question was whether those trace amounts could cause health problems on their own.

[..] the question of leaded gasoline’s health risks to the general public was a known unknown. We knew there was a legitimate question that needed answering, but big industry just steamrollered over the whole investigation for almost half a century. The health risk posed by Freon was a more mercurial beast: an unknown unknown. There was no way of answering the question — are CFCs bad for the health of the planet? — in 1928, and no real hint that it was even a question worth asking. Have we gotten better at imagining those unimaginable threats? It seems possible, maybe even likely, that we have, thanks to a loose network of developments: science fiction, scenario planning, environmental movements and, recently, the so-called longtermists, among them Toby Ord. But blank spots on the map of understanding are blank spots. It’s hard to see past them. [..]

The longtermists get a lot of grief for focusing on distant sci-fi futures — and ignoring our present-day suffering — but from a certain angle, you can interpret the Midgley story as rebuttal to those critics. Saturating our inner cities with toxic levels of ambient lead for more than half a century was a terrible idea, and if we had been thinking about that decades-long time horizon back in 1923, we might have been able to make another choice — perhaps embracing ethanol instead of Ethyl. [..]

The acceleration of technology casts another ominous shadow on Midgley’s legacy. Much has been made of his status as a “one-man environmental disaster,” as The New Scientist has called him. But in actuality, his ideas needed an enormous support system — industrial corporations, the United States military — to amplify them into world-changing forces. Kettering and Midgley were operating in a world governed by linear processes. You had to do a lot of work to produce your innovation at scale, if you were lucky enough to invent something worth scaling. But much of the industrial science now exploring the boundaries of those blank spots — synthetic biology, nanotech, gene editing — involves a different kind of technology: things that make copies of themselves. Today the cutting-edge science of fighting malaria is not aerosol spray cans; it’s “gene drive” technology that uses CRISPR to alter the genetics of mosquitoes, allowing human-engineered gene sequences to spread through the population — either reducing the insects’ ability to spread malaria or driving them into extinction. The giant industrial plants of Midgley’s age are giving way to nanofactories and biotech labs where the new breakthroughs are not so much manufactured as they are grown. A recent essay in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimated that there are probably more than 100 people now with the skills and technology to single-handedly reconstruct an organism like the smallpox virus, Variola major, perhaps the greatest killer in human history.

It is telling that the two moments when we stood on the very edge of Toby Ord’s “precipice” in the 20th century involved chain reactions: the fusion reaction set off by the Trinity Test and the chain reaction set off by CFCs in the ozone layer. But self-replicating organisms (or technologies) pose a different order of risk — exponential risk, not linear — whether they are viruses engineered by gain-of-function research to be more lethal, venturing into the wild through a lab leak or a deliberate act of terrorism, or a runaway nanofactory producing microscopic machines for some admirable purpose that escapes the control of its creator.

In his 2015 book, “A Dangerous Master: How to Keep Technology From Slipping Beyond Our Control,” Wendell Wallach talks about the class of unsettling near-term technologies that generally fit under the umbrella of “playing God”: cloning, gene editing, “curing” death, creating synthetic life-forms. There is something unnervingly godlike in the sheer scale of the impact that Thomas Midgley Jr. had on our environment, but the truth is that his innovations required immense infrastructure, all those Ethyl and Freon factories and gas stations and aerosol cans, to actually bring about that long-term destruction. But today, in an age of artificial replicators, it is much easier to imagine a next-generation Midgley playing God in the lab — with good or evil intent — and dispatching his creations with that most ancient of commands: Go forth, and multiply.

Full article, S Johnson, New York Times Magazine 2023.3.15