Thomas Midgley Jr.: Accidentally The Most Dangerous Man Who Ever Lived

Published July 9, 2015
Updated February 5, 2018

How Gasoline Became Gasoline

Beaver Falls PA Postcard

Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. Image Source:

Nothing about Midgley’s early life suggested a future filled with crimes against humanity. He grew up in a stable, happy home in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and learned how to tinker with machinery in the workshop of his father, an old-fashioned American inventor and handyman.

By dint of hard work, careful savings–and possibly apple pie and baseball–Midgley eventually earned entrance into Cornell University, graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1911.

Thomas Midgley Jr Worst Inventor Chevrolet

The first GM Chevrolet model ever produced. Image Source: D Business

He then went to work for a young car company called General Motors. When Midgley joined the team, he found them at a loss over the problem of engine rattling. As it happens, a solution already existed–add ethanol to the gasoline, which many are trying to get the government to subsidize now–but ethanol is produced by nature and can’t be patented. That means GM couldn’t make money off of ethanol additives, which means the engine-knocking problem was officially not fixed until something artificial and expensive could be developed.

Knowing that the knocking was a result of how the gasoline burned in the cylinders, Midgley tried adding iodine to stain the fuel red and change gasoline’s heat-absorption properties.

When that didn’t work, he started working his way down through the elements, experimenting with each, until he found lead. Leaded gasoline–containing GM’s proprietary ethyl lead compound, thank you very much–eliminated engine rattling and even improved mileage somewhat. Before long, virtually all gasoline used in the world contained lead.

Thomas Midgley Jr Worst Inventor Ethyl Ad

“Yeah, Pop. Don’t be so goddamn lame!” Image Source: Rigorous Intuition


Next up: The terrible things lead does to the human body…

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.