Thomas Midgely — Lead Gas Additive and CFC Developer

Consider the case of Thomas Midgely, who introduced the idea of adding lead to gasoline to stop engines from knocking. He later helped develop commercial chloroflourocarbon (CFC) for use in refrigeration. For many decades lead and CFC were used in cars and refrigerators. Both turned out to be among the worst pollutants the world has ever seen. But is Midgely himself guilty for having caused more pollution than anyone else in the twentieth century? I do not know if he could have foreseen the consequences of his inventions. The same action and outcome can lead to quite different assessment of moral responsibility, depending on your judgments about the person’s foresight, control, and intentions.

The Gap
The Gap

Thomas Suddendorf



Thomas Midgely
Thomas Midgely


Midgely was an American mechanical engineer and chemist. He was a key figure in a team of chemists that developed the lead additive to gasoline as well as chlorofluorocarbon (CFC). Midgley died three decades before the ozone-depleting effects of CFCs in the atmosphere became widely known. Another adverse effect of Midgley’s work was the release of large quantities of lead into the atmosphere as a result of the large-scale combustion of leaded gasoline all over the world.

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