A TAP ON THE SHOULDER
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly
there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping
at my chamber door.
-- Edgar Allan Poe, "The Raven"
While George Callendar sorted and totaled some fifty years' worth of temperature data, a bespectacled chemist living in Dayton, Ohio, was engaged in what at the time seemed a noble quest. Thomas Midgley Jr. had joined the staff of the General Motors Research Corporation, otherwise known as Delco, during World War I and quickly fulfilled his promise by developing lead tetraethyl, an antiknock agent that when combined with gasoline raised compression ratios in airplane engines, increasing power while reducing wear. The effervescent "Midge" became an instant hero and GM's profits soared when tetraethyl lead was added to the gasoline used in automobiles following the war.
Decades would pass before anyone realized that this major technological breakthrough had its dark and insidious side. Lead not only made its way into fuel but was added to paints and many other products harmful to the environment. Only with the advent of the catalytic converter was leaded gasoline banned in the United States, Canada, Japan, and much of Europe, while the battle to rid homes and apartments of toxic paint continues at untold cost.
With his star in the ascendant, Midgley was given another research challenge at the onset of the depression. Dr. Lester S.