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Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford - The Inventor Who Almost Ended the World

The Inventor Who Almost Ended the World

Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford

11/11/22 • 36 min

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Thomas Midgley's inventions caused his own death, hastened the deaths of millions of people around the world, and very nearly extinguished all life on land.

Midgley and his employers didn't set out to poison the air with leaded gasoline or wreck the ozone layer with CFCs - but while these dire consequences were unintended... could they have been anticipated?

For a full list of sources used in this episode visit Tim Harford.com

See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

11/11/22 • 36 min

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Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford - The Inventor Who Almost Ended the World

Transcript Summary

In this fascinating episode titled "The Inventor Who Almost Ended the World," the podcast explores the life and inventions of Thomas Midgley Jr., a prolific inventor whose inventions had unintended and disastrous consequences. Midgley, working for General Motors, was fascinated by chemistry and invented dichlorodifluoromethane (CFC), a seemingly safe refrigerant that rapidly gained popularity in refrigerators and air conditioners. However, it was later discovered that CFCs destroy the ozone layer, thanks to the groundbreaking work of scientists Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina. Despite mounting evidence, the industry fiercely resisted banning CFCs. Midgley himself suffered from the unintended effects of his inventions as he died from polio caused by one of his own creations. This episode touches upon the concept of unanticipated consequences and highlights the dangers of leaded gasoline, another invention of Midgley's, which caused health issues and environmental damage. Throughout the episode, alternative solutions and warnings from experts like Alice Hamilton were overlooked. The episode culminates with the establishment of the Montreal Protocol, a crucial step in phasing out CFCs. Engaging and thought-provoking, this episode sheds light on the intersection of scientific discovery, industrial interests, and the delicate balance between progress and unforeseen consequences.

Transcript

Speaker 1

Pushkin. Thomas Midgley Junior was born on College Hill in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, May eighteenth, eighteen eighty nine. His father, Thomas Midgley Senior, was a prolific inventor in a variety of fields, but notably that of automobile times, and his mother had the eulogy for and invente, a hero of industrial science who changed the world, and who died tragically young, aged just fifty five. Thomas Midgley Junior studied mechanical engineering

The Inventor Who Almost Ended the World Top Questions Answered

Who discovered the cause of engine knock in internal combustion engines?

Thomas Midgeley discovered the cause of engine knock in internal combustion engines.

What led to the invention of leaded gasoline?

Thomas Midgeley discovered tetra ethyl lead as an additive that stops engine knock without damaging the engine, which led to the invention of leaded gasoline.

What were the negative effects of leaded gasoline?

Leaded gasoline caused significant air pollution and health issues worldwide.

Who warned about the danger of CFCs to the ozone layer?

Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina warned about the danger of CFCs to the ozone layer.

What was the purpose of the Montreal Protocol?

The Montreal Protocol was established in 1987 to phase out CFCs and prevent further damage to the ozone layer.

Were the risks of leaded gasoline and CFCs known?

Yes, the risks associated with leaded gasoline and CFCs were predictable and known.

What was one of Thomas Midgley Jr.'s notable inventions?

One of Thomas Midgley Jr.'s notable inventions was dichlorodifluoromethane (CFC), which was used as a coolant in refrigerators and air conditioners.

Who discovered that CFCs were depleting the ozone layer?

Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland discovered that CFCs were depleting the ozone layer in the stratosphere.

What resulted in the ban on CFCs?

Environmental activists called for a ban on CFCs, and hard evidence of ozone layer damage was needed to gain government support for the ban.

Who coined the phrase "unanticipated consequences"?

Sociologist Robert K. Merton coined the phrase "unanticipated consequences" to describe the unintended outcomes of purposeful actions.

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Nov 19

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