The saying ‘necessity is the mother of all invention’, thought to possibly originate from Plato (no proof can be found of this though), suggests that at least in the past we have invented or innovated when we have needed to.
The story of Thomas Midgley Jr provides an interesting case study on why we might innovate, as he innovated for financial gain, success in business, intellectual curiosity, recognition, and at the end of his life also for personal need. The story of Midgely, a prolific inventor and innovator began in 1889 in Pennsylvania USA. Over his life time he was granted over a hundred patents. Although he was lauded for his scientific contributions during his lifetime, the negative environmental impacts of some of Midgley’s innovations have considerably tarnished his legacy. Environmental historian J. R. McNeil says that Midgley had a greater impact on the environment than any other single organism in world history.
While working for General Motors in 1921 Midgley discovered that the addition of tetra-ethyl-lead (TEL) to gasoline prevented ‘knocking’ in internal combustion engines. General Motors promoted the TEL additive as a superior alternative to ethanol or ethanol-blended fuels, on which they could make very little profit. Within two years of this discovery Midgley required a prolonged vacation to cure himself of lead poisoning ‘After about a year’s work in organic I find that my lungs have been affected and that it is necessary to drop all work and get a large supply of fresh air’ he wrote in. Lead in car fuels has resulted in high atmospheric lead levels which have been associated with serious health problems. Despite the many countries that are phasing out leaded petrol, the concentration of lead in the atmosphere is still resulting in health problems worldwide.
In the late 1920 General Motors assembled a team to develop a non-toxic, non-flammable alternative to the toxic, flammable refrigerants in use at the time. The team included Midgley who by this stage of his career was a vice president at the company. The team soon developed dichlorofluoromethane, the first chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) which they named ‘Freon’. Freon and other CFC soon replaced the toxic and flammable refrigerants and were also incorporated into other applications, such as propellants in aerosol spray cans and asthma inhalers. Despite CFCs being banned from the world for several years now, the hole in the ozone layer they caused is still in existence, resulting is significant health problems globally.
In 1940, at the age of 51, Midgley contracted poliomyelitis, which left him severely disabled. To help himself, Midgley developed an elaborate system of automated strings and pulleys to help others lift him from bed. In 1944, as his device sprang into action, Midgley was ensnared in the cords and strangled to death.