10 Getting The Lead Out
In the late 1940s, a graduate student at the University of Chicago named Clair Patterson (who was, first name notwithstanding, an Iowa farm boy by origin) was using a new method of lead isotope measurement to try to get a definitive age for the Earth at last. Unfortunately all his samples came up contaminated—usually wildly so. Most contained something like two hundred times the levels of lead that would normally be expected to occur. Many years would pass before Patterson realized that the reason for this lay with a regrettable Ohio inventor named Thomas Midgley, Jr.
Midgley was an engineer by training, and the world would no doubt have been a safer place if he had stayed so. Instead, he developed an interest in the industrial applications of chemistry. In 1921, while working for the General Motors Research Corporation in Dayton, Ohio, he investigated a compound called tetraethyl lead (also known, confusingly, as lead tetraethyl), and discovered that it significantly reduced the juddering condition known as engine knock.
Even though lead was widely known to be dangerous, by the early years of the twentieth century it could be found in all manner of consumer products. Food came in cans sealed with lead solder. Water was often stored in lead-lined tanks. It was sprayed onto fruit as a pesticide in the form of lead arsenate. It even came as part of the packaging of toothpaste tubes. Hardly a product existed that didn't bring a little lead into consumers' lives. However, nothing gave it a greater and more lasting intimacy than its addition to gasoline.