Wednesday, March 08, 2006

hegelian approaches to tinkering

The most dangerous man the world has ever known was not Attila the Hun or Mao Zedong. He was not Adolf Hitler. In fact, the most dangerous man the world has ever known died without having an inkling that he was the most dangerous man the world has ever known. He wasn’t a politician, or a general, or a bandit, and the most publicity he ever received was when he was elected president of the American Chemical Association in 1944. His name was Tom Midgley. He was a tinkerer.

I know about tinkerers. LI’s old man was a tinkerer until he retired to the mountains of North Georgia (and, incidentally, cut off all relations with LI. But that is another story altogether). Who knows, he might have known Willis Carrier, since he worked for Carrier Air Conditioning, and Willis certainly knew Tom Midgley. In which case, yours truly has three degrees of separation from the most dangerous man the world has ever known. Gives me goosebumps.

Although elected president of the American Chemical Association, Midgley was not really a chemist. He was a mechanical engineer. However, his work for Dupont and GM – GM was, for all practical purposes, owned by the Duponts back in the 20s – resulted in two chemical/mechanical inventions.

The project he became famous for was getting the knocking out of the internal combustion engine. First, he pinpointed the source of the knocking. It was in the nature of the way the gas burned. Second, he experimented with additions to gasoline, until he came up with the perfect mix, tetraethyl lead. Called ethyl, you simply added it to gas and presto chango, no knock. Of course, that meant that you were adding lead to a liquid that burned and that left an exhaust. Necessarily, you increased ambient lead in the environment. And not just any environment, but that which surrounded roads. The heavily human environment. The government actually got concerned about this in the twenties, although there was no EPA back then, and in fact little regulation of even industrial safety. Still, headlines had been made when the news got out that a number of Dupont employees had gone clinically insane and died due to lead poisoning while researching tetraethyl lead. The news leaked out even though Dupont nearly buried the news, since Dupont owned the lab the men got sick in, the town the men lived in, the hospitals the men were sent to, and the cemetery where the men were buried. In other words, in something like a libertarian dream, the state’s role was taken over entirely by a private corporation. Unfortunately for Dupont, one of the happy beneficiaries of this arrangement escaped the embrace of Dupont and got to a non-Dupont owned hospital in Pennsylvania.

This meant that ethyl had to be defended. A Yale professor, Yandell Henderson, became the additive’s chief defamer. Now, Henderson was the kind of guy that, through the ages, tinkerers just hate – a smarty pants, a nosy parker, a pink professor, a nanny stater, an alarmist, practically a woman (In a review of Silent Spring published in 1963 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the reviewer concluded his dismissal of the book by writing that “Silent Spring, which I read word for word with some trauma, kept reminding me of trying to win an argument with a woman. It can not be done.”). But at the conference that, essentially, rubberstamped the use of ethyl, Henderson made a pretty good shot at summing up the social side of the issue: “The men engaged in industry, chemists and engineers, take it as a matter of course that a little thing like industrial poisoning should not be allowed to stand in the way of a great industrial advance.”

By this time, Midgley had moved on to his next project. He’d been called upon to devise a safe refrigerant. At the time, GM/Dupont owned Frigidaire, the largest refrigerator maker. Unfortunately, there was a dirty little secret about the refrigerators they sold – they used methyl chloride. In 1929, in a Cleveland hospital, the fumes of methyl chloride had diffused through the duct system after an explosion in the x ray room, and it killed 125 people – one of those extensively unremembered industrial accidents. Midgley set to work and eventually discovered a whole family of refrigerants: the chloroflorocarbons.

LI takes these facts from Cagan and Dray’s invaluable history, “Between Earth and Sky”.

Now, here is where LI’s private history grazes against the elephantine hide of public history. The great freon scare of the late eighties was played out, in miniature, at the LI family dinner table. Since the public discussion of global warming has followed, as though by the numbers, the public health/environmental discussions of yore – the same resistance to facts and theories, the same industrial coalitions finding “skeptics” of “junk science,” the same inevitable gathering of real events propelling the discussion from stage one, denial, to stage two, re-visioning benefits, to stage three, expenses and convenience – with the same stage managers, the state and big business, plying the lies – I figure a look back is useful not only to recognize the patterns, but to uncover the dialectical figures that emerge from the patterns. Surely the tinkerer is as worthy of philosophical attention as the master and the slave. In a future post, LI will try to draw his philosophical lineaments.

PS PS – Speaking of industrial accidents nobody has heard of, the Prudhoe Bay leak (via brickburner) has gotten zip attention. Largest spill since 1989. And figures for how much was spilled are still coming in. See here. And here, for a description of the state of the art monitoring of leaks – this one was heard gurgling by an oil field worker. There you go – the money those oil companies spend to be green and greener! It just makes the whole board of the AEI terribly sad.


The Lizard said...

Since you mention "junk science", LI, I offer this page.

Notice all the references to the Cato Institute. I wonder how many people who accept as a reference source know what the Cato Institute is and what it stands for?

Roger Gathmann said...

Thm, good points about CATO - the idea of putting the junk science label on inconvenient research is the latest manifestation of a pretty old business tactic. In the case of the lead additive to gas, the issue was owned, for a long time, by Robert Kehoe of the University of Cincinnati, who would be wheeled out to swat down any questions about the gradually buildup of lead in the atmosphere. And of course those who did that questioning would soon get into trouble in their departments. While being 100 percent wrong, shilling for corporate interest, has never endangered tenure yet, being 10 percent wrong and criticizing corporate interest immediately puts your position in an American university in danger, if you are a scientist.

But... this shows, among other things, that science is an amazing cultural creation, since eventually the scientists do tend to concede to the reality they discover -- unlike, for example, economics or political science. This is true even of some scientists who get paid by the corporations. It is important to rememember that their are multiple dimensions to human motivation. There is even such a thing as honor.

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