Leaded gas myths

By Bill Kovarik

In this essay, written for the NSF-funded Chemcases  project, I have in mind a strong exception to a view of history expressed by Ethyl Corp.’s Lloyd Osgood. In his opinion, an article in The Nation by Jamie Kitman based on new historical research was “a distorted interpretation of known historic events and documents that have long been in the public record.”

Distorted? The article never been seriously challenged on the grounds of accuracy, but the word “distorted” is subjective and perhaps arguable.

More to the point, was the Ethyl controversy a “known historic event“? Until the mid-1980s, the events of 1924 were barely known and only mentioned in specialized books about the automotive, oil or chemical industries. Most of these were sponsored by the industries in question.

  “Long been in the public record?”  Au contraire.  The only things in the public record from the companies involved are public relations memos. The original documentation of the development and marketing of Ethyl leaded gasoline has, in fact, long been hidden from the public.

Are all the facts on the table? Very definitely not. The Ethyl Corp. has retained in its archives many thousands of pages of original documentation called by Kettering and Midgley “the Lead Diary” that have never been seen by scholars or the public.

Obviously, a company with aspirations to the slightest credibility cannot hide facts on the one hand and say its own history is a closed book on the other. Nor can it pay historians to create versions of its history based on tertiary documentation and then insist that its version of history is the only proper or true version.

The remedy for this difficult state of affairs is for Ethyl Corp. to open its entire archive to scholars and the public.

The larger question is whether history can ever be considered a closed book, whether any body of facts can ever be so well known that new interpretations can be dismissed out of hand for merely contradicting the established view.


Ancient Greek historians approached their work with two very distinct motivations. Around 430 BC, Herodotus, the “father” of history, wrote in order to “honor the heroes” of the Trojan Wars. Thirty years later, Thucydides wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War. He did not write to honor heroes, but rather was interested in helping future generations learn from the past.

It’s useful to recall these two motivations, both of which are common among historians through the ages, as we examine one of the most contentious areas in modern history — the development of tetra-ethyl lead (TEL) as a gasoline additive.

Between the 1920s and the 1970s, many historians saw the development of TEL as exemplary of high quality scientific research and portrayed it in a strongly romantic and heroic style.

But in the 1990s, the release of new documents shed a harsher light on TEL research. Today, many historians believe that the natural impulse towards heroic myth got in the way of lessons that should have been learned.

An example of the heroic approach is found in a 1978 paper by Thomas Hughes, who called TEL development “a beautiful [example of] deliberately planned research.” G.M. engineers Kettering and Midgley “tried out all elements possible in a so-called Edisonian style,” Hughes said.

Other historians saw leaded gasoline as the final step in a progression of discovery, a “success story” with only one possible outcome. The public health controversy was dismissed as a wildly lurid and sensational sideshow of no importance.

In recent years, historians working with new documents have asked new questions. For instance:

•Was GM management unaware of the risks of manufacturing and using TEL, as they claimed? Heroic historians (eg Joseph C. Robert) have backed up the claim, but this was before new documentation was available.

•How accurate is the portrayal of the supposedly lurid public dimension of the 1920s environmental controversy?

• Was TEL the product of a systematic, scientific search through all possible alternatives? Were there other choices?

• How accurate was the public health research used by GM to support TEL during the 1930s Ð 1960s?

• How did TEL originally fit into GM’s long range plans to continue in business — even if oil supplies ran out?

Until recently, historians lacked data on which to even raise these questions, much less reach any conclusions. Most government documents were missing or destroyed. GM’s publicly available archives were three steps removed from historical validity. They were tertiary — that is, they mostly consisted of memos about memos. Unlike most other major inventions, none of the original lab notebooks, draft papers or internal reports were available until 1992.

That year, 40 boxes of disorganized files from Midgley’s Dayton, Ohio office were given to Kettering University (at that time called the General Motors Institute) of Flynt, Mich. These files did not contain most of the key documents that are still missing today. But they did have enough of the early drafts and confidential memos to give an outline of the research program for the first time.

The Midgley documents (and others) demonstrate that: GM managers were aware of the health risks in the early 1920s; that they hurried production recklessly; that GM research reports were censored when they pointed the way to less toxic alternatives; that GM and Ethyl officials claimed in scientific meetings and government hearings that no alternatives existed; that TEL was profitable but a difficult technical choice among many alternatives; that its use was supported by deceptive public health research in the 1930s-1960s; and that Kettering and Midgley’s original special motivation for TEL was to boost engine compression ratios and ease the switch to non-petroleum fuels when oil ran out.

New research also showed that the public health controversy of the 1920s was based on legitimate concerns. Ironically, these concerns were entirely forgotten by the 1980s, and nearly identical arguments were replayed in public, scientific and governmental arenas.

The TEL controversy is a good example of Santayana’s famous aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

These new interpretations of the history of TEL, which were rather at odds with the mythological histories, were submitted in papers for debate to historical and scientific conferences in the 1990s.

Having stood up to challenges, they are beginning to emerge in popular literature, such as the Nation article by Jamie Kitman.

The process of research, discovery, weighing facts and then submitting conclusions for debate is essential in history, science, and other areas of serious scholarship.

Scholars try to approach their material without preconceptions, follow the facts and submit their conclusions to other scholars for refutation or validation.

In this process, myths will be uprooted and heroic reputations will be tarnished. Not everyone will approve. There may be historians who decry “revisionism,” implying that history is being altered from some hypothetical original truthfulness. Indeed, sometimes revisionism may seem reprehensible. For example, who does not cringe to hear fanatic claims that the Holocaust of World War II never happened? Yet such claims fall because they ignore facts, not because they attempt to revise a history which we must leave cemented in place.

It is far better for the facts to be challenged from time to time in order to retrace our steps and be as certain of their accuracy as may be possible. In this way, as John Stuart Mill once said, we don’t hold our opinions as mere prejudices but rather as fully informed positions.

History, then, is not a static collection of well known facts any more than science is an unchanging description of the physical world.

History represents views of the past that may change, grow and coalesce around facts that may only become available decades after events in question. New facts may diminish the luster of our heroic narratives, and this may make an historian unpopular.

So it goes. As Thucydides said, the job of an historian is not to win the applause of the moment, but to write history “as a possession for all time.”

Ten Myths about Leaded Gasoline

Myth 1. Now that leaded gasoline is banned in the U.S., there is no reason to revist the controversy. There is a lot to learn from this episode of our history. It was the “Chernobyl” of the 1920s and one of the great environmental disasters of the 20th century. Only in recent years have most nations banned leaded gasoline.

Myth 2. Only in the 1970s did scientists become aware of the dangers of leaded gasoline. Fact: GM’s Charles Kettering and Thomas Midgley were well aware of the dangers and were repeatedly warned by scientists from Harvard, MIT, Yale and Pottsdam about this “creeping and malicious poison” long before it was put on the market in 1923.

Myth 3. The 1921 discoverty of tetraethyl lead was the product of a systematic and scientific search through all the possible octane boosting alternatives. Fact: This is a widely accepted view but, in light of recently available historical evidence, wildly off the mark. In fact, leaded gasoline was only one result of what was originally a frantic and haphazard search, and later a highly selective search, for a patentable anti-knock additive. It was meant to be a bridge to higher octane fuels of the future, especially alcohol (ethanol) from cellulose. Midgley wrote Kettering at one point in 1922 (after TEL was invented): “Unquestionably alcohol is the fuel of the future and is [already] playing its part in tropical countries… ”

Myth 4. The news media attacked the oil and automotive industries once the gruesome deaths of refinery workers became public in October of 1924. The press labelled it “loony gas” and sensationalism swept away rational considerations. Fact: The workers themselves named the fuel additive loony gas because they knew it was, literally, driving them crazy. The media “attack” was nothing more than reporting on a commercial enterprise with grave public health implications. GM, Standard Oil (Exxon) and the Ethyl Corp. employed a physician who at one point insisted to the press that “nothing be said about this in the public interest.” When that request was shrugged off by the media, any subsequent reporting would be seen as an attack.

Myth 5. GM’s Kettering and his assistant Thomas Midgley were not fully aware of the risks of killing workers using the manufacturing process they developed. Fact: Midgley had lead poisoning himself in 1922. In early 1923, two workers died at GM’s Dayton, Ohio facility. DuPont took up the manufacturing process in 1923 and lost five workers in the early months of operation. Even so, the construction of the Standard Bayway, N.J. plant in 1924 shocked DuPont engineers who protested that the plant was being built without regard for worker safety. Kettering, however, issued “war orders” to get the plants at full capacity in the shortest possible time

Myth 6. The 17 direct deaths and dozens more indirect deaths from leaded gasoline production and distribution in the 1920s were mainly attributable to a failure of management and/or staff to follow instructions. Fact: This was the public relations line pursued by the company in subsequent years, and most historians have repeated it. Yet according to DuPont engineers who testified in a 1950s federal case, it was the manifestly unsafe plant design, where workers came into direct contact with concentrated fumes from the reactor vessels, that was responsible for the initial disasters

Myth 7. Kettering and Midgley discarded other alternatives after leaded gasoline was introduced because it was technically and economically the best choice for a detonation surpressing fuel additive. Fact: Leaded gasoline was not the most obvious alternative. There were still many technical problems with leaded gasoline, and engines had to be redesigned to use it. The reason Kettering was in such a hurry (see Myth #5) was that Arco, Sunoco and other major companies were marketing high octane gasoline from thermal (and later, catalytic) cracking processes without resorting to lead additives.

Myth 8. The Surgeon General’s committee on leaded gasoline gave it a “clean bill of health” in its 1926 report. Fact: Many of the members of the committee felt that the study was “half baked” and that the public health question had not been answered. They strongly recommended continued independent testing. That did not occur until the 1960s.

Myth 9. Historians today have all the documentation they need to understand the environmental conflict over leaded gasoline in the 1920s. Fact: Standard, Ethyl and GM archives may still contain thousands of unreleased pages of original documentation concerning the development of leaded gasoline. Most historical accounts until recently have been based purely on * tertiary * historical sources that were highly refined by GM public relations experts.

Myth 10. Economic and technologically sound alternatives to leaded gasoline were not known at the time and are not available today. Fact: Along with thermal and catalytic cracking and at least three types of high percentage alcohol additives (methanol, ethanol and tertiary butyl alcohol), a considerable number of alternatives to TEL were widely known. In fact, many were patented by GM in the 1920s and 30s and reported in Chemical Engineering. An FBI anti-trust report about the Ethyl Corp. lists over 40 GM fuel patents in the period.