I can thank the wonderful TV show QI for drawing my attention to Thomas Midgely Junior, a great inventor who inadvertently became an environmentalist’s worst nightmare.
In 1916 Midgely joined the Dayton Research Laboratory. A subsidiary of General Motors, the lab marketed a small kerosene engine to drive home lighting systems on farms but it knocked terribly. Midgely guessed that dyeing the fuel red might cause it to absorb more heat and knock less. When he added iodine to the fuel, there was indeed less knock. Midgely then set out to find a better additive and after six years of research he found that tetraethyl lead worked beautifully. He was thus was thus the inventor of leaded petrol.
Midgely took three days to make his second great advance. Early refrigeration units used nasty chemicals like sulfur dioxide and ammonia. Something better was desperately needed so he went back to the periodic table and invented dichloroflouromethane -- the first of the CFCs. While CFCs are not toxic they of course do terrible damage to the ozone layer.
Midgely contracted polio in 1940 at the age of 51. As he lost the use of his legs, he invented a harness to get himself out of bed. On 2 November 1944, he strangled himself in his invention.
There is no moral to this story. Midgely was a great inventor but there is no doubt that his inventions came with a terrible price, even his final one.
Engines of our ingenuity