It is “a universal assumption that [ethyl] alcohol in some form will be a constituent of the motor fuel of the future.”
So wrote Scientific American. The year was 1920, and the respected journal was not alone in this belief. In October 1921, less than two months before General Motors’ research laboratory hatched the idea of adding lead to gasoline, Charles Kettering’s deputy drove a high-compression Chevrolet from Dayton, Ohio, to a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Indianapolis, powered by a blend of 70 percent gasoline and 30 percent ethanol.
The deputy—consequential mechanical engineer Thomas Midgley—was quite the personality, a showman and great, unsung character of American history. In addition to being credited with identifying lead’s utility as a gasoline additive (which ultimately blanketed the world in a deadly heavy metal neurotoxin that never biodegrades), his brief career also included the creation of the refrigerant Freon, which damaged the ozone layer and is now outlawed, and the discovery of the chemical family of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are implicated in every styrofoam pellet, propellant, and plastic piece of crud floating around the South Pacific today in a giant multimillion-ton vortex of junk. That’s a life work for which we owe him a debt, but it’s not one of gratitude.
Midgley died a hero in 1944. By all accounts he was a swell guy who enjoyed discussing science while drinking with students, some of whom credited him in remembrances with also having invented the gin and juice cocktail. Recounting his life, an obit in Time credited him with lead and Freon and for indirectly inventing DDT, a byproduct of his CFC research that was allegedly helping the Allies to win the war in the South Pacific. Midgley died young, in his 50s, his health undoubtedly suffering from years of barnstorming and too frequent public demonstrations of his chemical creations—washing his hands, for instance, in leaded gasoline to prove its safety or exhaling lungfuls of Freon to extinguish lit matches, thereby demonstrating its nonflammable character. Knowing what we know today, Midgley seems two things: a lovable, thrill-seeking ball of self-destructive nuttiness and possibly one of the most dangerous men of the 20th century. He deserves his own Broadway musical, a dark comedy, I’m thinking.
Back in Indianapolis, Midgley was euphoric. “Alcohol,” he told the assembled engineers, “has tremendous advantages and minor disadvantages,” all of which he described as surmountable. The benefits included “clean burning and freedom from any carbon deposit … [and the] tremendously high compression under which alcohol will operate without knocking. … Because of the possible high compression, the available horsepower is much greater with alcohol than with gasoline.”
Midgley closed the case for ethanol with a hopeful prognostication that might sound familiar to today’s biofuels advocates: “From our cellulose waste products on the farm such as straw, cornstalks, corn cobs, and all similar sorts of material we throw away, we can get, by present known methods, enough alcohol to run all our automotive equipment in the United States.”
Even after the GM lab’s discovery that a deadly, little-known compound called tetraethyl lead stopped knock in engines in 1921, Midgley was still singing ethanol’s praises: “[I]t is well known that alcohol … improves the combustion characteristics of the fuel.” And he added, “As the reserves of petroleum in this country become more and more depleted, the use … of alcohol in commercial motor fuels will probably be greatly extended.”
Professor Bill Kovarik of Radford University, who has written extensively on ethanol’s history and to whom this column is indebted, reminds us that fears of disruption of petroleum supplies were as much on the nation’s mind then as they are now.
Such scarcity concerns were a recurrent theme connecting the auto industry’s pronouncements in the 1920s as it made the case for high compression. Adding compression can enhance fuel economy, but higher compression can also mean more power, and the tension between economy and power was rarely discussed. However, with hindsight—reasoning backward from the fact the American fleet’s average fuel economy fell steadily from the introduction of high-compression motors in the 1920s through their days of ubiquity in the 1960s, a period in which horsepower rose just as steadily—we can conclude that whether it started out that way or not, more horsepower (a key marketing differentiator) was the attribute the industry desired most.
But first it needed fuel capable of supporting higher compression, and the oil industry wasn’t providing it. What was needed—though it had no name at the time—was more of what came to be called octane, a measurement of explosive properties that began declining in gasoline after the World War I. As the numbers of cars on American roads multiplied exponentially, gasoline’s quality fell as refiners chose to use lesser, cheaper, poorly refined crudes. Though better petroleum stock and advancements in refining technology—chiefly the process known as catalytic cracking—might have obviated the need for additives, the industry was loath to spend money where none had to be spent. Additives that cost little and required no capital investment were attractive fixes, and Kettering’s GM lab, sensing profits, experimented with several. This attracted the interest of its corporate masters at DuPont and the busybodies at Standard Oil of New Jersey, which joined the new business they setup to sell their preferred choice: lead. In the end, the company took a different route than the one Midgley and his boss strongly recommended that afternoon in Indianapolis. Ethanol could not be patented, and Standard hated it because it directly displaced gasoline.
By the mid-1920s, ethyl alcohol was blended with gasoline in every industrialized nation in the world, except the U.S. We chose lead as our additive of choice, and it was ubiquitous here before it was spread around the world. In the beginning, we were told we urgently needed to save fuel, and our corporate leaders told us untruthfully, as it turned out, that lead was the only way. Speaking in favor of lead in April 1925, Midgley was both apocalyptic and strangely forgetful: “Conservation of petroleum due to the increased mileage obtainable by using a non-knocking gasoline in high-compression motors; the reduction of carbon-monoxide contamination of the atmosphere due to increased efficiency of combustion and reduced first cost of automotive apparatus are some of the benefits. … So far as science knows at the present time, tetraethyl lead is the only material available which can bring about these results, which are of vital importance to the continued economical use by the general public of all automotive equipment. … ”