Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

Introducing the worst inventor in history

Why do we think it is so important to understand problems? This video introduces a real example of someone who didn't: meet Thomas Midgely!
Thomas Midgley Jr. was born in Pennsylvania in 1889 and he went on to become one of America’s most renowned chemists and inventors. In his lifetime he held over 100 patents and in 1941 the American Chemical Society gave Midgley its highest award, the Priestley medal. However, Midgley’s legacy isn’t entirely positive. In fact, he’s notorious for two particular inventions which have caused significant, rather negative, impacts on the planet and its people. Midgley developed both leaded petroland the first chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC. The environmental historian J.R. McNeill described Thomas Midgley as having more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in the Earth’s history.
Lead was added to our petrol to reduce the damage from knocking and make our engines more efficient and quiet. However, the lead that was added to the fuel was eventually added to our atmosphere. Once absorbed into the body, the lead results in kidney damage, inhibits body growth, causes abdominal pain, anaemia, and can affect the nervous system. In children it even affects their growth and development and it may also be linked to behaviour change and violent crime. In fact, Midgley gave himself lead poisoning on at least two occasions whilst demonstrating that it wasn’t harmful.
Midgley then turned his attention to another of society’s challenges: air conditioning and refrigeration. When researching alternatives to ammonia, chloromethane and propane, which although effective refrigerants were toxic, flammable or explosive, he helped to synthesise dichlorodifluoromethane which was named Freon. Freon, although non-toxic, non-flammable, and non-carcinogenic, contributed to the creation of the hole in the ozone layer. Midgley unfortunately contracted polio in 1940 and, ever the innovator, he devised an elaborate system of strings and pulleys to help others lift him from his bed. This invention was both one of his last contributions and, sadly, the cause of his own death, when in 1944 at the age of 55 he became entangled in the device and died of strangulation.
The key point to take from Thomas Midgley’s life is that today’s solutions are often the cause of tomorrow’s problems. And we hope that by taking the time to truly understand your problem, and fully consider the consequences of your actions, that you too don’t join Thomas Midgley as one of the worst inventors in history.

This week you have been working hard to identify, structure and categorise problems. In the previous activities you started to explore what can happen when you add solutions to complex problems, especially when you don’t fully understand all the variables. Often, you end up with unintended outcomes.

To help demonstrate why we think it is so important to understand problems in this way, we here introduce a real example of someone who didn’t.

Meet Thomas Midgely: arguably one of the ‘worst’ inventors in history!

Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing and perhaps Thomas was acting rationally given all the information available to him at the time, or do you think he could have foreseen any of the potential consequences of his actions?

This article is from the free online

Unleash Your Potential: Innovation and Enterprise

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now