Thomas Midgley- chemist Thomas Midgley Jnr.- Chemist candle
Born 18th May 1889 at Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
Died Worthington, Ohio 2nd November 1944
Holder of 117 patents

As a mechanical engineer and self taught chemist, Thomas used the trends in the periodic table with T.A. Boyd of  the General Motors Research Laboratory, to develop tetraethyl lead. (C2H5)4Pb in 1921, an anti-pinking (knocking) agent in petrol motors. This is the “leaded petrol” we are phasing out today with L.R.P. [Lead Replacement Petrol]. 'Ethyl' as the fuel came to be known is considered to have been a major reason why the Allies won the second World War as it enabled them to use faster, more powerful high compression engines in  their war planes. Without 'Ethyl', the 'Hurricane and the 'Spitfire', Britain is unlikely to have repelled the Nazi invaders. See an account of  'ethyl'  taken from an American Chemistry text of 1938. 

Thomas also succeeded in extracting bromine from seawater. Following this success he "outlined the possibilities of chemistry as a creative science in the following gently humorous remarks:
"In the begining God created the heaven and the earth..... And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself... And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth....And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing and beast of the earth.... And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth"
These excerpts from Genesis present the simplest and most commonly accepted explanation of those alchemistic processes which gave us our universe and the earth on which we live.

bullet Refrigeration
In the 1920’s home refrigeration was developing but the gases being used, such as ammonia, sulfur dioxide and chloromethane, were toxic or flammable. When these gases leaked from refrigeration units they caused the deaths of  many people whilst they were sleeping in their homes.
For this reason Thomas developed carbon tetrafluoride, or today, tetrafluoromethane (CF4) a cleaning agent and then in 1930, dichlorofluoromethane (CCl2F2) later called “Freon”. This is a non-toxic and non-flammable gas which is unreactive at normal temperatures. It is able to be easily liquified by pressure without cooling.
Thomas Midgley In 1930 Thomas demonstrated  before the American Chemical Society the safe physical properties of Freon by inhaling a lungful of  the new wonder gas and breathing it out onto a candle flame which was extinguished, thus showing its non-toxic and non-flammable properties. Today freon is used as a refrigerant, blower and propellant but under the Montreal Protocol is gradually being phased out.
Little is known of his work on a flying bomb with Charles Kettering during World War I, the world's first cruise missile. Kettering said of  Thomas that he was "the greatest discovery I ever made." 5

bullet Thomas' Genealogy
Thomas as an engineer was descended from an ancestor who also worked as an engineer with James Watt. This could conceivably be William Midgley a Quaker mill owner of Rochdale [b. 1758]. William established a wool and cotton mill there. Watt  moved from Glasgow to Birmingham in 1774 after the rotary steam engine had been constructed in 1765. This interest in the compression of gases seems to have been passed down through the family. Thomas is descended from Eli Midgley a younger brother of William, the Quaker mill owner in Rochdale. Thomas senior was born in London, England on the 22nd October 1860 and migrated to the United States on the 8th August 1869 with his family at the age of eight.5 The family settled in Worcester, Massachusetts. At the age of four Thomas jnr. and his father and mother moved to Trenton, New Jersey, his mother's hometown. Thomas junior was the only child of Thomas Midgley senior and Hattie Emerson who married 16th December 1886, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. Thomas senior died in Florida, Christmas Day 1934. Hattie [d.1950] was descended from Ralph Waldo Emerson who was descended from Thomas Emerson of Ipswich, Massachusetts. Hattie's father was  James Emerson the inventor of the 'inserted-tooth saw', they resided with James for two years before relocating to Columbus, Ohio.5
Thomas junior's grandson is presently researching the family pedigree which descends from the Midgleys of Rochdale, Lancashire.
A Gedcom file for Thomas junior's predecessors can be downloaded here

bullet Ultra-Violet Intensity
Now it has become apparent in the last twenty years that C.F.C’s are some of the gases helping to reduce the ozone layer, a protective layer against U.V. 24 km above the Earth. Increased U.V. levels are responsible for increased skin melanomas. In 1939 Thomas paradoxically predicted the control of the ozone layer in order to control the Earth’s climate! 

bullet Global Warming and CO2
It has been found that 'greenhouse gases' the main culprits for global warming, carbon dioxide and methane, have been raising the temperature of the atmosphere. According to Dr Paul Fraser CSIRO's Marine and Atmospheric Research division, ozone depletion is temperature sensitive. Increased stratospheric temperatures reduce the ozone destroying behaviours of C.F.C.'s and 2006-7 was a particularly warm time in the stratosphere. A warmer stratosphere causes ozone to increase more rapidly, reducing the size of the 'ozone holes' over the polar regions. However, "as we increase the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, there is another phenomenon occurring, which is stratospheric or upper atmospheric cooling".

Ozone depleting chemicals that can stay active for about a hundred years have been declining since a peak in the late 1990's, the long term trend is that the ozone depletion is decreasing and will lead to eventual ozone recovery. However, the counter-balance to the reduction of C.F.C.'s in the atmosphere is global warming. As the Earth's surface warms, paradoxically, the stratosphere cools, which according to Dr. Paul Fraser could increase the rate of ozone depletion.

 The ozone hole above the Antarctic has shrunk.
 At about 25 million square kilometres, the hole is the                 smallest it has been in five years.
- Dr Paul Fraser CSIRO's Marine and Atmospheric Research division.        16th November 2007

In August 1989 an ozone destroying molecule was identified called Halon 1202. This had increased in concentration five times since the late 1970's. In two years 1987-9, the concentration had increased by some 17% p.a. whilst C.F.C-11 had stabilised. Halon 1202 has an ozone depleting potential about half that of other C.F.C's. Halon 1202 is not banned in the Montreal Protocol, the C.S.I.R.O would like it extended to include it in the light of their discovery. 

Further calls to heed the Montreal Protocol have come from Bozkov (September 1998) who has produced evidence that greenhouse gases such as CO2 and CH4 may be playing a role in ozone reduction. These gases appear to be causing a warming of the earths atmosphere which in turn leads to a cooling of the stratosphere, these lower temperatures may lead to a reduction in the formation of ozone. Bozkov states Australia has lost 1/3 of its ozone in 20 years. In December 1989 it was reported that the production of the earth's methane production had stabilised for some reason.
In March 1999 it was reported that a new threat to the ozone layer existed in the form of halon 1211. There are three halons two of which are being phased out. It has been shown that this halon gas is destroying the ozone molecules of the trophosphere at a faster rate than anything before.
China is the main producer of halon 1211 which is used primarily as a fire retardant gas. The impact of halons and the levels of its production have been grossly underestimated by the world's scientists, production is increasing at an estimated 200 tonnes per year and poses a far greater risk now than Chlorofluorocarbons.
The problem is urgent for countries in high southern latitudes because the ozone destroying chemicals accumulate in a vortex around Antarctica and spread a blanket of ozone deprived air over the southern continents. This indicates that the recovery of the ozone layer is going to take many years longer than previously anticipated. Halons are more destructive because they produce bromine gas as a decomposition product, this reacts with ozone to destroy the O3. Another haloalkane, methyl bromide, most widely used particularly in agriculture, as a fumigant where all else fails to remove nematodes from the soil, is also responsible for ozone depletion. In fact it appears that most halogens which can reach the upper atmosphere seem to be involved in this depletion.

Ethanol in fuel is not so new as demonstrated here in 1933. Thomas proposed using ethanol to raise the octane rating at one point but the industry insisted on tetraethyl lead, and you know the rest of the story..

bullet Hindsight is 20/20 vision
Thomas's final years with General Motors were devoted to pure research into rubber. In 1940 Thomas contracted polio, subsequently through his inventiveness he built a harness with pulleys to enable himself to get in and out of bed, but in 1944 he tragically strangled when the harness became tangled. This anecdote was used to begin a BBC film series entitled “Pandora’s Box” shown on ABC TV 21st October 1992 which attempted to symbolise how mankind, by developing technology is supposedly killing itself, e.g. the film concludes that in the year Thomas died, D.D.T. was invented. This of course ignored the benefits D.D.T. brought to the medical world by saving millions of lives through a reduction in the number of anopheles mosquitoes which carry the disease, malaria. As with Freon and tetra ethyl lead, they were chemicals of their time. Perhaps the same could be said for nuclear weapons carbon-dioxide and methane.

bullet The Book "From the Periodic Table to Production" by Thoms Midgley IV,  grandson of Thomas jnr.  This is where you can read the real story behind this highly productive leader and team-worker whose primary concern was to improve the quality of  human existence.From the Periodic Table to Production

ISBN; 0-9643853-0-9
Published 2001.
Price [Hardcover]: $US 24.95,  174 pages with 36 illustrations.

The book may be purchased from the publishers through:
Stargazer Publishing Co. website
Stargazer E-mail 
Stargazer Publishing Co.
P.O. Box 77002
Corona, CA 92877-0100

start exploring


The Thomas Midgley Award - founded 1965
Kettering and Midgley
Charles Kettering and Thomas Midgley 
The Smith Collection, University of Pennsylvania.

For an insight into the development and preservation of Thomas's antiknock device see Mark Everhardt's Page


1. Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopaedia of Science & Technology. pp930-1,  Pan Books.
2. Midgley, Thomas IV. From the Periodic Table to Production, 2001, Stargazer Publishing Co

Other sources:
2. BBC Documentary film Part I Pandora’s Box.
3. C.S.I.R.O Double Helix newsletter.
4. C.S.I.R.O. Dr. Paul Fraser at the Cape Grim, Bureau of Met., Western Tasmania.
5. Theiler, Carl R., Men and Molecules,  Harrap & Co. 1960, pp. 151-152. [Translated from German.]

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Copyright © Tim Midgley 1998, internal links revised July 2023.