The dashing, charismatic inventor of the 1920’s, Thomas Midgley Jr., was both a genius and, as it turns out, also a menace to us all.
His brilliance back then has now put us all under a gathering storm resulting from his committing two of history’s biggest blunders.
According to a well-written article by Steven Johnson published recently in The New York Times one of my favorite newspapers besides my local paper The Palm Beach Post, he describes Midgley as “a brilliant American maverick of the first order.”
As I tend to be intrigued by mavericks, and at times I’m one myself, a nice one with my MaddenMischief blog, I couldn’t stop reading Johnson’s piece about how Midgley brought into the world breakthroughs that dramatically advanced two of the most important technological revolutions of the age: automobiles and refrigeration.
But his inventions in the 1920’s came with unintended consequences that would take a dark turn in the decades that followed. While The Times praised him as “one of the nation’s outstanding chemists” in its obituary, today Midgley is best known for the terrible consequences of that chemistry, Johnson writes, when he managed to invent leaded gasoline and develop the first commercial use of the chlorofluorocarbons, destined to create a hole in the ozone layer.
Each of these innovations offered a brilliant solution to an urgent technological problem of his era: making automobiles more efficient, producing a safer refrigerant. But each turned out to have deadly secondary effects on a global scale. There may be no other single person in history who did as much damage to human health and the planet, all with best of intentions at the time they were invented.
What should we make of the disquieting career of Thomas Midgley Jr.? There are material reasons for revisiting his story now, beyond the one accidental rhyme of history: the centennial of leaded gasoline’s first appearance on the market in 1923.
“That might seem like the distant past, but the truth is we are still living with the consequences of Midgley’s innovations,” said Johnson. Thankfully this year, the United Nations released an encouraging study reporting that the ozone layer was indeed on the mend and should fully recover from the damage caused by Midgley’s chlorofluorocarbons — but it will take another 40 years.
The arc of Midgley’s life points to a debate that has intensified in recent years, which can be boiled down to this: When we make decisions today, how much should we worry about consequences that might take decades or centuries to take effect?
Johnson asks if seemingly harmless G.M.O.s (genetically modified organisms) will bring about secondary effects that become visible only to future generations? Will early research into nanoscale materials ultimately allow terrorists to unleash killer nanobots in urban centers?
I ask why docile electorates cannot foresee the inhumanity that will torture and murder innocent children and their parents when they empower such reprehensible mavericks as a Hitler, Stalin and now a recklessly pugnacious Putin determined to annihilate Ukraine?
Midgley’s innovations such as the chlorofluorocarbons seemed like brilliant ideas at the time, but 50 years has taught us otherwise.
“Pondering Midgley and his legacy forces us to wrestle with the core questions at the heart of ‘longtermism,’” says Johnson, as the debate over long-term thinking has come to be called. So what is the right time horizon for anticipating potential threats?
The flip side question is whether focusing on speculative futures distracts us or even worse, inhibits us from pursuing solutions to undeniable needs or problems of the present?
Midgley’s story poses a crucial question for a culture like ours, dominated by market-driven forces crying out for innovation. So how do we best bring new things into the world when we recognize, by definition, that their long-term consequences for now maybe yet unknowable.
I find these are prophetic questions we should all be asking ourselves and especially the geniuses and mavericks among us should be posing themselves.
Will one day all of us be living once again under a gathering storm caused by unintended consequences from some maverick’s ingenious inventions, discoveries, or findings?
And in the meantime, will someone please invent a fool-proof way to keep trains carrying vinyl chloride from derailing and bursting into flames emitting that deadly dioxin into the lungs of innocent children in a small rural village.
Tom Madden is a sort of a maverick PR man as he comes up with extraordinary ideas to attract media attention to products like his invention “Knife and Forklift,” which he patented and sold worldwide to help people to eat slower using knives and forks protruding from weighted dumbbells enabling them to work out and exercise restraint while eating. He is the CEO of TransMedia Group, his lean and mean PR firm in Boca Raton, FL, which he started when he left NBC.