Cautionary Tales – The inventor who almost ended the world

11th November, 2022

Thomas Midgley’s inventions caused his own death, hastened the deaths of millions of people around the world, and very nearly extinguished all life on land. 

Midgley and his employers didn’t set out to poison the air with leaded gasoline or wreck the ozone layer with CFCs – but while these dire consequences were unintended… could they have been anticipated? 

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is produced by Ryan Dilley, with support from Courtney Guarino and Emily Vaughn.

The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, including Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Royston Beserve, Maggie Taylor, Nicole Morano, Daniella Lakhan and Maya Koenig.

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Further reading and listening

On Thomas Midgley

Charles Kettering “Biographical Memoir of Thomas Midgley Jr

Fred Pearce “Inventor hero was a one-man environmental disasterNew Scientist 7 June 2017

Edelmann, F.T. 2016 (31:viii): The life and legacy of Thomas Midgley Jr. Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania 150(1): 45–49.

On CFCs and the Ozone Layer

Sharon Roan Ozone Crisis

Press Release on the award of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Paul Crutzen, Mario Molina, and F Sherwood Rowland

New York Times obituary of Joseph Farman

On Lead

Mark Sutton “Pb or not Pb: the toxic question of leaded fuelChemistry World 20 December 2021

Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, 1987

UNEP press release on leaded petrol

Tom Whipple “Leaded Petrol reduces intelligence decades later” The Times March 2017

On Unanticipated Consequences

Robert K Merton The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action. American Sociological Review, Vol. 1, No. 6 (Dec., 1936), pp. 894-904

Frank de Zwart, Unintended but not Unanticipated Consequences, Theory and Society 44(3), April 2015

Nitin Nohria and Hemant Taneka “Managing the Unintended Consequences of Your InnovationsHarvard Business Review 19 January 2021

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