The Secret History of Lead | The Nation


The Secret History of Lead

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute. Follow-ups:
"Amplification," June 19, 2000 and letters exchanges: "Lead--Balloons and Bouquets," May 15, and "Lead-Letter Office," July 3, 2000.

But the Good News Is...

About the Author

Jamie Lincoln Kitman
Jamie Lincoln Kitman, New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine, won an investigative reporting award from...

Also by the Author

General Motors must shoulder blame for a faulty product mix and a
stubborn resistance to the idea of single-payer health insurance, which
sent benefits costs soaring.

The stalling of the Republican-backed energy bill by a Democrat-led Senate filibuster was only a temporary reprieve.

The year 1923 did not begin well, then, for supporters of tetraethyl lead. In January, on account of lead poisoning, Thomas Midgley was forced to decline speaking engagements at three regional panels of the American Chemical Society, which had awarded him a medal for his discovery. "After about a year's work in organic lead," he wrote, "I find that my lungs have been affected and that it is necessary to drop all work and get a large supply of fresh air." He repaired to Miami.

Before leaving town, Midgley penned a reply to Cumming's letter, which had been passed on to him by Pierre du Pont. Although the question "had been given very serious consideration," he wrote, "...no actual experimental data has been taken." Even so, Midgley assured the Surgeon General, GM and Du Pont believed that "the average street will probably be so free from lead that it will be impossible to detect it or its absorption." In other words, TEL, the deadly chemical curiosity, was being brought to market without any thought or study as to its public health implications, but rather on the hopeful hunch of a clever mechanical engineer who had just been poisoned by lead.

Around this time, Midgley had also begun to receive letters expressing grave concern over TEL from well-known public health and medical authorities at leading universities, including Robert Wilson of MIT, Reid Hunt of Harvard, Yandell Henderson of Yale (America's foremost expert on poison gases and automotive exhaust) and Dr. Erik Krause of the Institute of Technology, Potsdam, Germany. Krause called TEL "a creeping and malicious poison," and he told Midgley it had killed a member of his dissertation committee. Charles Kettering may have been concerned by this growing chorus of TEL critics, but the early months of 1923 saw his mind preoccupied with another matter. In May of that year, after four costly years of development, Kettering's beloved copper-cooled engine was abandoned as a production program, a high-profile embarrassment within the company and the larger automotive community. "It was then," wrote Kettering's research assistant and biographer, T.A. Boyd, some years later, "that his spirits reached the lowest point in his research career."

The abject failure of the copper-cooled engine led the fiercely proud Kettering to believe his personal capital in the company had been terminally depleted. "Since this thing with the Copper-Cooled Car has come up," he wrote Alfred Sloan (who became GM's president in 1923), "the Laboratory has been practically isolated from Corporation activities." Kettering's shame was so enormous that he tendered his resignation in a letter to Sloan. "I regret very much that this situation has developed. I have been extremely unhappy and know that I have made you and Mr. du Pont equally unhappy.... work here at the Laboratory, I realize, has been almost 100% failure, but not because of the fundamental principles involved. Enough may come out of the Laboratory to have paid for their existence but no one will care to continue in Research activities as the situation now stands."

'My Dear Boss'

Sloan declined to let Kettering go. But America's most famous automotive engineer after Henry Ford emerged with a renewed sensitivity to the profit-making needs of his corporation. In this regard, TEL held out an immediate lifeline. Writing Kettering from Florida in March 1923, Midgley related a mad brainstorm whose relevance had now become fully clear to Kettering. "My dear boss," he began, "The way I feel about the Ethyl Gas situation is about as follows: It looks as though we could count on a minimum of 20 percent of the gas sold in the country if we advertise and go after the business--this at three cent gross to us from each gallon sold. I think we ought to go after it as soon as we can without being too hasty."

Midgley barely scratched the surface of the wealth to come. With a legal monopoly based on patents that would provide a royalty on practically every gallon of gasoline sold for the life of its patent, Ethyl promised to make GM shareholders--among whom the du Ponts, Alfred Sloan and Charles Kettering were the largest--very rich. Profit-free ethanol, indeed. As Kovarik has calculated: "With gasoline sales [in 1923] around six billion gallons per year, 20 percent would come to about 1.2 billion gallons, and three cents gross would represent $36 million. With the cost of production and distribution running less than one cent per gallon of treated gasoline, more than two thirds of the $36 million would be annual gross profit. Of course, within a decade 80 percent of the then 12 billion gallon market used Ethyl, for an annual gross of almost $300 million."

The fears of excessive hastiness expressed in Midgley's letter were evidently allayed. In April 1923, one month after he'd performed his riveting calculations, the General Motors Chemical Company was established to produce TEL, with Charles Kettering as president and Thomas Midgley as vice president.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.