In 1921, after a long string of inadequate solutions, a clever but chronically catastrophic chemist named Thomas Midgley developed a fuel additive which eliminated ping problems while increasing fuel efficiency. Though the chemical agent eventually gained worldwide acceptance, it left a rash of psychosis, a trail of bodies, an epidemic of crime, and an irreparably damaged environment in its wake.
Mr. Midgley, the father of leaded gasoline continued his distinguished career by inventing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the refrigerants and aerosol propellants which famously destroyed a considerable section of the Earth’s ozone layer before they were banned. Along the way Midgley received an awesome array of awards for his contributions to chemistry, many of which were later regretted upon discovering the damage done by his innovations. He did not survive to witness the disassembly of his successes, however. After becoming impaired by a polio infection, Midgley devised a machine with motorized pulleys to assist him in rising from bed and turning over. One day in 1944, as his automatic contraption sprang into action, he was ensnared in the cords and strangled to death.
Some historians have argued that Midgley’s tetra-ethyl lead was a necessary evil; one which hastened the progress of efficient engines, thereby advancing the economy and contributing to victory in World War II. It is worth noting, however, that in the early years of Ethyl’s availability, basic refinery advances boosted the base octane of fuel by 20-30 points, whereas Ethyl additive only boosted it by about nine points. In retrospect, Ethyl’s octane improvements were somewhat overstated, and the product owed most of its success to crafty marketing, misleading research, and chronic government incompetence. Whatever Ethyl’s benefits, it saturated the planet with an insidious poison, and the true magnitude of its past, present, and future harm are yet to be known.
Read more about Mr. Midgley’s exploits at Damn Interesting