Global Lead Network: The Secret History of Lead: And the Winner Is...

The Secret History of Lead: A Special Report from The Nation

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And the Winner Is…

The effect of this sudden time constraint was striking. As GM researcher and Kettering biographer T.A. Boyd noted in an unpublished history written in 1943, Midgley’s main research in 1919-20 had been to make alcohols out of olefins found in petroleum through reactions with sulfuric acid. (Farm alcohol was one thing, but a patentable process for production of petroleum-derived alcohol — a possible money-maker — was quite another, one of considerably greater interest to the corporation.) “But in view of the verdict setting a time limit on how much further the research for an antiknock compound might continue,” Boyd said, “work was resumed at once in making engine tests of whatever further compounds happened to be available on the shelf of the lab…or which could be gotten readily.”

As noted earlier, Midgley tested many compounds before isolating tetraethyl lead in December 1921. In the early days, he would attribute the discovery of TEL’s antiknock properties to “luck and religion, as well as the application of science.” In a 1925 magazine article, he would recall false trails with iodine, aniline, selenium and tellurium before hitting upon lead. Curiously, his article omitted any reference to the alcohol-gasoline blend he’d patented just five years earlier.

Another oddity: The exact number of compounds tested prior to TEL’s discovery varies dramatically in different accounts. As Professor William Kovarik of Radford University has observed, confusion reigns in part because the lab’s day-to-day test diaries have never been released to the public by the General Motors Institute (GMI) archive. In the words of one archivist there, GM’s lead archives have been “sanitized.” One 1925 article in the Literary Digest put the number at 2,500 compounds tested, while The Story of Ethyl Gasoline, a 1927 pamphlet released by a company Midgley would help found, states that 33,000 were studied. Another time, he claimed 14,991 elements were examined, while a 1980 Ethyl corporation statement set the number at 144. This question is important because GM’s discovery of lead’s antiknock properties, which initially caused little internal excitement, would be hailed in popular media and later cited in polytechnical texts as a model of rational, orderly scientific inquiry that sought the single best answer to the knock question. A more realistic view of events is that TEL’s re-emergence in the twenties was the result of a crude empirical potshot that was understood to promise a landslide of earnings over time.

Apprised of Midgley’s discovery that one part TEL could be used to fortify 1,000 parts of gasoline, Kettering proposed the name “Ethyl” for the new antiknock fluid, a mild irony in light of both men’s longtime — and soon to fade — interest in ethyl alcohol. At researcher Boyd’s suggestion Ethyl was dyed red. There was as yet, however, no plan to market Ethyl. Indeed, in July 1922, seven months after TEL’s discovery, J.W. Morrison of the GM Patent Department would encourage Midgley to “see if the U.S. Industrial Alcohol Co. have opened a valuable line of research. Mr. Clements [the lab manager at GM] stated some time ago that it might be worth our while to carry our investigations further on the problem of utilizing alcohols in motors. I think he mentioned specifically combinations of alcohol and gasoline.”

From the corporation’s perspective, however, the problems with ethyl alcohol were ultimately insurmountable and rather basic. GM couldn’t dictate an infrastructure that could supply ethanol in the volumes that might be required. Equally troubling, any idiot with a still could make it at home, and in those days, many did. And ethanol, unlike TEL, couldn’t be patented; it offered no profits for GM. Moreover, the oil companies hated it, a powerful disincentive for the fledgling GM, which was loath to jeopardize relations with these mighty power brokers. Surely the du Pont family’s growing interest in oil and oil fields, as it branched out from its gunpowder roots into the oil-dependent chemical business, weighed on many GM directors’ minds.

In March 1922, Pierre du Pont wrote to his brother Irénée du Pont, Du Pont company chairman, that TEL is “a colorless liquid of sweetish odor, very poisonous if absorbed through the skin, resulting in lead poisoning almost immediately.” This statement of early factual knowledge of TEL’s supreme deadliness is noteworthy, for it is knowledge that will be denied repeatedly by the principals in coming years as well as in the Ethyl Corporation’s authorized history, released almost sixty years later. Underscoring the deep and implicit coziness between GM and Du Pont at this time, Pierre informed Irénée about TEL before GM had even filed its patent application for it.

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