Lucky or Unlucky?
Human history is the result of the many contributions by individuals.
Some individuals we consider good. They have tried to make the Earth a better place, and we try and emulate them as best we can.
Some we consider bad. We record their destructive ways and use them as examples of what not to do.
Luck may have had something to do with their results. Some people are born lucky.
We also know of people, some of them friends or even relations, who are perennially unlucky. Their lives consist of one disaster after another. Some we may have read about.
There is the strange case of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived an atomic bomb blast when he was visiting Hiroshima in 1945 only to experience a second attack when he returned home to Nagasaki a few days later. He was 29 at the time. He survived and lived to the age of 93; so perhaps he was lucky after all.1
On the other hand there are people like Elmer Sherwin who experience still greater luck.
In 1989 Elmer won a 4.6 million dollar Megabucks slot machine jackpot at the Mirage in Las Vegas. After that success, he was determined to see if he could win another one. He did. In 2005 he won 21 million dollars at the Megabucks slot machine at the Cannery in North Las Vegas.2
And just to show that extreme luck can run both ways, there is the instance of Frano Selak who has been in a bus wreck, a train derailment, a couple of car explosions, a plane crash, survived a car that went over a cliff as well as won a million dollars in the Croatian lottery.3
These are extreme cases of individual luck but are localized events.
What about an individual whose life at first glance seems perfectly normal but on closer inspection has quietly created disaster after disaster on a global scale while professing no apparent ill will to either the planet or humans in general? Was it simply the luck of being in the wrong profession at the wrong time, or something else?
Thomas Midgley was a mechanical engineer and chemist.
He was born in Pennsylvania in 1889 and began working for General Motors in 1916.
He discovered that Tetraethyllead (TEL), a special lead additive to gasoline, reduced knocking in internal combustion engines.
Knocking is something that is not a particular issue with today’s automobiles due to computer controlled fuel injection but in the early days it was a significant problem as manufacturers tried to make faster and more powerful motors.
Knocking reduces engine life and in extreme cases blows the engine apart.
It occurs when part of the fuel/air mixture detonates rather than burns. One can hear it as a loud tapping sound when older model cars with manual transmissions climb a hill in too low a gear.
Midgley found that adding TEL to gasoline raised the temperature that the fuel/air mixture needed to attain before exploding. It reduced detonations and preventing knocking.
This was no small discovery. Automobile companies had been trying to deal with the problem for years, and here was a solution. But they were not the only industry to profit from Midgley’s work.
Oil companies had been adding ethanol (alcohol) to their fuels as an anti-knock compound for some time, but the results on the bottom line were poor because it was expensive to make and remain competitive. Gasoline sold at prices only slightly higher than the cost of production. TEL, on the other hand, made the manufacturing of no-knock gasoline much more profitable. It was a match made in heaven, or hell as it turned out. TEL contained lead in sufficient quantities to be extremely toxic.
Lead poisoning has been around for thousands of years. It is the oldest known workplace and environmental hazard. What was new in the 20th century was the understanding of the small amount of lead necessary to do harm.
Signs of chronic exposure include stomach problems, weight loss, depression, loss of coordination, slurred speech, neurological disorders, and other symptoms. In acute cases, it causes death.
In 1923 General Motors in cooperation with Dupont opened a prototype chemical plant in Dayton, Ohio for the exclusive production of TEL which was marketed under the name Ethyl with no mention of lead.
This was the same year that Midgely decided, after receiving a prestigious award, to take an extended vacation in Florida to try and rid himself of the lead poisoning that he knew he was experiencing.4
Soon after the Dayton plant opened, workers began to experience the symptoms of those who had recently received large amounts of lead poisoning. Two workers died. Depression was an attribute of those that worked there. Still nothing was done, these issues were ignored.
Unhappy with the speed of production GM and Standard Oil of New Jersey created the Ethyl Corporation and a new plant was set up in New Jersey. Within the first two months five more workers died while many others were sickened.
To counteract this alarming evidence, the Ethyl Corporation began a steady campaign of denial that was somewhat successful, but workers still suffered from lead exposure with more deaths and more denials.
Eventually, in 1924, Midgley, in a Public Relations move, participated in a press conference to demonstrate the safety of TEL by pouring it over his hands and then inhaling the vapors for a minute or more saying that he could do this every day with no difficulties.
Unconvinced, the state of New Jersey ordered the plant closed while Midgley went to Europe to get treatment specifically for lead poisoning a few months after the press conference.5
He was soon out of a job but still remained in the employ of GM.
TEL continued to be added to gasoline, but better methods of production were developed.
Just how destructive was the overall effect of TEL on the planet?
In the 1950s Clair Paterson began work on outlining the geochemical evolution of the Earth. One of his findings was that deep ocean levels contained 3-10 times less lead than surface water. On examining ice cores and measuring the amount of lead traces, he was able to determine that the addition of TEL to fuels marked the beginning of significant lead contamination that was many times greater than suspected.
It was so bad that he made it part of his life’s work to raise awareness of lead poisoning. It was due to his campaigning that in 1973 the Environmental Protection Agency began a phased removal of lead fuel additives with the results that lead levels in Americans dropped by some 80% and clearer skies became more normal over cities.
How many people ultimately died or were harmed by TEL is hard to assess but it is safe to say that everyone that has lived in the United States between the advent of TEL (1923) and the 1970’s has been harmed in some way and a significant portion of the world population as well. It also thought that lead poisoning may have generated above average criminality and violence.
With no further work in the TEL department, Midgley needed another challenge so he decided to get his wits around the problem of refrigeration. Prior to the 1920s air conditioning and refrigeration units used anything from ammonia to propane and sulfur dioxide as refrigerants. Not only were these extremely toxic but often times explosive. Death by either the leaking of air conditioning or refrigerator units was not uncommon. What was needed was a compound that could change from liquid to gas and back again easily and not react with other chemicals.
The concept that Midgley tried out was the combining of fluorine with hydrocarbons. The thinking was that the bond between fluorine atoms and carbon atoms would be so strong that it would not react with other chemicals and thus could be considered inert or non-reactive. Eventually his team synthesized dichlorodicarbomethane better known as Freon. It was an instant commercial success and revolutionized the refrigeration and air conditioning industry overnight. It also became the propellant of choice in all spray products from deodorants to hair sprays.
Award followed award.
It was not until the 1970s that various studies began to discover that Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) of which Freon was a significant part might be destructive to life on Earth.6
Oxygen is usually found in a gaseous state in the atmosphere as a pair of atoms (O2). Ozone is formed when three Oxygen atoms combine (O3) usually as the result of electrical discharges such as lightning. Although there is not a lot of it, ozone forms a thin layer in the upper atmosphere that absorbs much of the Ultraviolet Radiation that is harmful to life. The layer is self-replicating because ozone breaks down when absorbing UV rays and then recombines in a continuous process that produces around 12% of the ozone layer each day.
Freon is extremely stable. Midgley was very right on that point. Freon and other CFC’s are not easily broken down chemically nor are they dissolved by rain and washed out of the atmosphere. They simply float about and are carried by winds into the upper atmosphere. There, the strong UV radiation that the ozone layer absorbs and prevents from striking the Earth is able to break down the CFCs but only after long exposure (up to 100 years). Unfortunately for life on Earth, the breakup of each Freon molecule releases two atoms of chlorine.
One chlorine atom can break down about 100,000 ozone molecules. The overall effect is that ozone molecules are destroyed in greater number than they can be replaced by natural processes allowing more and more UV radiation to strike the Earth and those that live on it.7
The environmental impact of Midgley’s second discovery is not only still creating problems but is likely to for some time.
The affects on humans in terms of cancers and on the overall environment is also hard to assess but it is surely significant for most organic life.
In 1940, at the age of 51, Midgley contracted polio. True to form, he invented an elaborate system of pulleys and chords to help maneuver himself; however, in 1944 he became entangled as the machine was operating and died as the result of strangulation.8
Thus ended the life of a man of whom it has been remarked that there has existed no single organism in Earth’s history who has had more of an impact on Earth’s atmosphere.9
Did he know what he was doing? Did he know the consequence, or was it simply bad luck that dropped him into a situation that generated one ecological disaster after another?
Some who may consider themselves unlucky perhaps should reassess their situation in comparison.
Surely, he was a man who should have taken up golf rather than chemical engineering.
- McDonald, M. (2010, January 6) Tsutomo Yamaguchi, Survivor of 2 Atomic Blasts, Dies at 93, The New York Times. Retrieved January 13, 2014 from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/07/world/asia/07yamaguchi.html?_r=0.
- Patterson, L. (2005, September 16) 92 Year-Old Las Vegan Wins Megabucks Twice, KLAS-TV Las Vegas. Retrieved January 13, 2014 from http://www.8newsnow.com/story/3861251/92-year-old-las-vegan-wins-megabucks-twice.
- Sumitra. (2013 January 2) Frano Selak – Truly the World’s (Un)Luckiest Man. Retrieved January 13, 2014 from http://www.odditycentral.com/news/frano-selak-truly-the-worlds-unluckiest-man.html.
- Gmoke. (2010, January 26) Three Inventions of Thomas Midgley Jr. The First Geoengineer. Retrieved January 13, 2014 from http://www.dailykos.com/story/2010/01/26/830326/-Three-Inventions-of-Thomas-Midgley-Jr-the-First-Geoengineer.
- Blum, D. (2010) The Poisoner’s Handbook. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
- Bryson, B. (2005) A Short History of Nearly Everything. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
- Ozone, The Earth Observatory. Retrieved January 13, 2014 from http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Ozone/ozone_2.php.
- Bryson, op. cit.
- Van Duissen (2013) The Worst Inventor in History. Retrieved January 13, 2014 from http://knowledgenuts.com/2013/10/03/the-worst-inventor-in-history.
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© 2014 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.