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‘Midge’: The upcoming movie about a local inventor who almost destroyed the world

‘Midge’: The upcoming movie about a local inventor who almost destroyed the world

John M. Clark

In 1924, a Worthington inventor gave the public a chemical that would eventually kill or harm millions of individuals.  Four years later, he developed a second compound that was even deadlier than the first.  Now, Hollywood is about to tell his story.

Terence Winter, who created the acclaimed Boardwalk Empire TV series and wrote dozens of Sopranos episodes is joining actor Vincent Piazza to produce Midge, based on the life of Thomas Midgley, Jr.  As Winter recently said, “The only thing crazier than this story is that it hasn’t already been told.”

An article in the January 2024 issue of (614) Magazine focused on Midgley’s philanthropic efforts during the Great Depression, when he hired more than 50 men to beautify his 48-acre West Wilson Bridge Road property.  His lawn became known by some as the finest in America, an image of which appeared on the letterhead of the Scotts Seed Company (now Scotts Miracle-Gro).

Midgley, who is believed to have been a cave enthusiast, also directed his workmen to build a labyrinth of tunnels beneath his home, lining them with limestone and outfitting them with custom ironwork for handrails, door hinges and various decorations.  He loved to show off the candle-lit tunnels to guests, who accessed his underworld through the stately home’s rec room and exited by a door at the bottom of a bluff, behind his house.


Midgley, the son and grandson of successful inventors, was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in Columbus, attended Cornell University and graduated in 1911 with a degree in mechanical engineering.  But his true love was chemistry; and he was known for carrying a copy of the periodic chart with him wherever he went.

Five years after graduation, Midgley took a job with General Motors in Dayton.  There, he quickly came to the attention of Charles Kettering, who just five years earlier had become famous for inventing the electric car starter.  Kettering asked Midgley to help him come up with a solution for engine knock – an aberration in the combustion of gasoline that sapped power from early automobiles, jolted its riders and threatened to stem the growth of the burgeoning auto industry.

In late 1921, after testing a reported 30,000 chemical compounds or more, Midgley finally found the anti-knock formula he had been searching for – a type of lead, which was already known to be harmful to humans and animals.  Midgley could have used a form of alcohol to accomplish the same effect.  But his goal, and Kettering’s, was also to make money.  And the profit from using an alcohol additive was too low.

In 1923, Midgley took an extended vacation in Florida to recover from lead poisoning he received during the development and promotion phases of the new compound.  While there, he phoned his boss, back in Ohio.  “Can you imagine how much money we’re going to make?” he reportedly said.  “We’re going to make 200 million dollars, maybe even more!”

Early factories were plagued by health and safety issues.  Vapors from early production methods at the Linden, New Jersey, plant killed several workers and caused hallucinations and insanity among many others.  Within months, the State of New Jersey temporarily shut the factory down.  Eventually, Midgley and his team figured out a safer way to make the dangerous additive.

Company officials hid the fact that the new gasoline additive remained extremely harmful to the public.  The term, “lead” was never used in its marketing or advertising.  Instead, they called it “ethyl” – short for “tetraethyl lead.”  Americans had been duped.  Driving increased, and the sales of new automobiles soared.

The dangers from lead had been known, dating back as far as the 4th century.  As an additive to paint, used to facilitate drying and increase durability, lead eventually cracks and forms flakes.  Its sweet taste encourages small children to eat it and put painted toys in their mouths.  Dust enters the ground, where it enters the ecosystem and is eventually ingested by animals and humans.

Exhaust pipes from cars, trucks and machinery also inject tons of lead particles into the air, where it is breathed in … and into the soil, where it, too, enters the ecosystem.  Because of lead in our environment, millions of people developed anti-social behaviors and even scored significantly lower on I.Q. tests.  The chemical has also been linked to a rise in violent crime rates.  Over the past century, more than 100 million people have died from consuming lead in one form or another.  The U.S. government finally banned lead from paint in 1978 and as a fuel additive in 1996.

If he had stopped with his first major invention, Midgley would have caused enough harm.  But in 1928, he took on another manufacturing challenge.  GM’s refrigerator division had been losing money for years, primarily because of the deadly compounds being used at the time to lower temperatures.  One was highly toxic – another highly flammable.  Once again, a promising industry was threatened.

Midgley and his team wasted little time in coming up with the world’s first hydrofluorocarbon (HFC).  To prove its safety, the inventor inhaled the stuff for a crowd of onlookers and then blew out a candle – demonstrating the belief that HFCs were both safe to breathe and inflammable.  The new compound was sold as “Freon-12.”  Thus, the Frigidaire was born, along with millions of other home and commercial refrigerators.  And air conditioning with Freon soon followed.

But what was thought to be a safe alternative to the earlier refrigeration gases began poking holes in Earth’s ozone layer – the region of our atmosphere that filters out UV and other deadly forms of radiation.  The use of Freon was finally phased out in the United States in 2020.  But scientists say it may take another 40 years for the planet to be completely healed from the effect of it and the other HFCs that followed.  While Midgley knew of the dangers from lead, the role of HFCs in harming and killing people wasn’t known until long after his death.

For his successes, Midgley won numerous awards.  The Society of Chemical Industry awarded him the prestigious Perkin Medal in 1937.  In 1941, he was awarded the Priestley Medal by the American Chemical Society.  Other awards followed, as did two honorary degrees.  He was also elected to the United States Academy of Sciences.  And in 1944, he was named President of the American Chemical Society.

In later decades, as the harmful effects of leaded gas and HFCs became clear, the scientific community reassessed Midgley’s contributions.  Science writer Fred Pearce has since described Midgley as a “one-man environmental disaster.”  Time magazine included both of the engineer’s major discoveries on its list of the “50 Worst Inventions” of all time.

The man who would eventually hold close to 200 patents returned to the Columbus area in 1929 with his wife, the former Carrie Reynolds.  Here, he built a large home on West Wilson Bridge Road, helped raise a family and carried on with his research.  In the early ‘30s, the newly minted millionaire began the major improvements to his property, including the man-made caverns.  From 1940 to 1944, Midgley served as vice president of the Ohio State University Research Foundation.  

In 1940, at the age of 51, Midgley contracted polio.  It wasn’t long before he found himself dependent on a wheelchair.  Striving for as much independence as he could salvage, he came up with an elaborate system of belts and pulleys to move himself between his bed and his chair.  On the morning of November 22nd, 1944, Midgley’s wife entered his bedroom to find his lifeless body entangled in his contraption.  Publicly, the cause of death was given as accidental asphyxiation.  Privately, the coroner ruled it a suicide.

Not long afterward, Midgley’s widow sold the house and moved on.  The new owners kept the caves open until mischievous neighborhood boys began vandalizing them and setting fires inside.  At that point, the late inventor’s underground creation was sealed off for good.  And when state authorities seized the property in 1965 to build I-270, the house – and presumably the caverns below it – were destroyed.

Today, the world is still reeling from Thomas Midgley, Jr.’s two remarkable, yet catastrophic, inventions.  So, how will the general public react to the story of a Central Ohio man who is blamed for killing or harming hundreds of millions of people around the world?  We will just have to wait until Midge hits the big screen – perhaps next year.

Want to read more? Check out our print publications, (614) Magazine and Stock & Barrel. Learn where you can find free copies of our newest issues here!


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