A wry view of life for the world-weary

There Ain’t Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Six


Thomas Midgley

Britain is just coming out of its mini cold snap – you know the score, media-fuelled frenzy and panic, emergency adverse weather train timetables etc etc – and so it seems timely to induct our sixth member into the Clever Bastards hall of fame. Step forward, Thomas Midgley.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the genius of the American chemist, Midgley almost single-handedly contributed to the acceleration of global warming with his discoveries and also died in a vaguely amusing way.

Midgley first applied his mind to the problem of engine knock – this is where petrol “detonates” from pressure and not spark ignition. This usually happen when there is too much oxygen in the air/fuel mixture or where the ignition timing is too far advanced. He solved the problem by identifying the petroleum additive, tethraethyl lead, or leaded petrol, what was later to become the bane of the environmentalists. There was, besides accelerating global warming (sorry, Boris, but there is such a thing) a problem with using tethraethyl lead and that was that it corroded the valves and spark plugs of engines. The ever resourceful Midgley solved that problem – but not the environmental havoc his discovery was wreaking – by employing bromine and inventing a method to extract large quantities of the stuff from seawater.

In 1930 Midgley was asked to find an inexpensive non-toxic refrigerant for use in household appliances by General Motors. He discovered that dichlorodifluoromethane, or Freon for short, fitted the bill. Freon is a major member of the CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) group of organic compounds which, too, have made a major contribution to the depletion of the ozone layer. Leaded petrol and CFCs – well done, Tom!

Naturally, all this fooling around with lead had a deleterious effect on Midgley’s health. He eventually contracted polio in 1940 and lead poisoning which left him disabled and bed-ridden . Despite his disability, he remained active amongst the chemistry community and even served as president of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in 1944.

There was a softer side to the environment-wrecking chemist – he was a poet – and he concluded his presidential address to the ACS in 1944 with the following verses which seem to foreshadow his own demise, “When I feel old age approaching, and it isn’t any sport, and my nerves are growing rotten, and my breath is growing short, and my eyes are growing dimmer, and my hair is turning white, and I lack the old ambitions when I wander out at night, though many men my senior may remain when I’m gone, I have no regrets to offer just because I’m passing on, let this epitaph be graven on my tomb in simple style, this one did a lot of living in a mighty little while.”

Midgley contributed to his own demise by applying his brilliant but dangerous mind to his own predicament. He wouldn’t let being bed-ridden defeat him so rigged up an elaborate system of pulleys and ropes to lift him out of bed. Unfortunately, at the age of 55 and just one month after reciting his prescient verses, he managed to asphyxiate himself after being strangled by one of the pulleys.

So, all three of his inventions contributed to his death – truly, a worthy member of our illustrious pantheon!  


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link


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