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Global Lead Network: The Secret History of Lead: 'My Dear Boss'

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

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‘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.

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