Tales of Buckeye Innovators
"When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck;
when you invent the plane, you also invent the plane crash; and
when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution...
"Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress."
-French architect and philosopher Paul Varilio
This year marks the hundredth anniversary of two innovations which, at the time, were considered the greatest breakthroughs of modern industrial chemistry.
The inventions solved two consumer-driven problems. One eliminated engine knock, which was not just a sound, but a surge of pressure that produced unpleasant vibrations and even loss of power in cars. The other provided an alternative to the methyl chloride, sulfur dioxide, and ammonia that were being used in cooling systems, resulting in deadly leaks and explosions.
The inventor was Columbus, Ohio native Thomas Midgley Jr., a mechanical engineer employed by General Motors.
The inventions? Leaded gasoline and freon.
By making cars more efficient and refrigerants safer, Midgley's inventions drastically accelerated the growth of the automobile and air cooling/refrigeration industries and, in the case of refrigeration, saved many lives by keeping food, life-saving drugs and blood donations from spoiling. (An interesting side note is that the intended purpose of freon was for air conditioning in cars, but the refrigeration industry benefited).
As we now know, the innovations were a double-edged sword. They improved the quality of life for countless people, but the pollutants of tetraethyl lead and CFCs have had enormous, unintended consequences on human health and the environment, and unfortunately, some have dubbed Midgley "history's most dangerous inventor."
Midgley is well-known for his achievements. A lesser-known fact is that an Ohio State alumnus played a pivotal role in the creation of leaded gasoline.
Thomas A. Boyd (1888-1989; 1918 BS chemical engineering)
Thomas Alvin Boyd was Midgley's number two man and head of the fuels division at General Motors Research Laboratories, where he conducted much of the research. Boyd discovered the knock-suppressing properties of aniline and assembled data that indicated a definite relationship between knock and fuel structure. [Business History Review, Winter 1980, JSTOR]
Boyd's work as a chemical engineer greatly assisted Midgley. In all, Midgley and his team tested 33,000 different compounds by meandering through the periodic table and adding the elements to fuel. They found that heavy metals had the greatest knock-reducing power, and settled on the heaviest metal known at the time: lead. Thus, the fuel additive tetraethyl lead (TEL) was born.
The advent of materials like freon and TEL—at first a revolution but later problematic—became a cautionary tale. Economic drivers played a role in their development, but so did the shortcomings of conventional reductionist science. In the 1940s engineers at Bell Labs (see Bode, next page) undertook a more holistic approach—analyzing how things exist within and effect an interconnected, interdependent system. This came to be known as systems engineering. CBE Professor Bhavik Bakshi's work in sustainable engineering expands the boundary of conventional systems engineering to include ecological, economic, and social systems, which can help avoid such unintended consequences. Tools such as life cycle assessment and carbon footprinting could help scientists better assess the long-term impacts of their innovations, he says.
Other Buckeye innovators whose work has had significant impact include:
Hendrik Bode (1905-1982; 1924/26 BS/MA Mathematics)
Namesake of Bode plots, which are a method for analyzing control systems taught in Chemical Process Dynamics and Control (CBE 4624), Hendrik Bode received his Ohio State BS/MA degrees (1924, 1926-Mathematics) before moving to Bell Labs, where he worked on electrical network theory throughout his career. At Bell, he pursued graduate studies at Columbia University, earning a PhD in physics in 1935.
Bode became widely known as one of the most articulate, thoughtful exponents of the philosophy and practice of systems engineering—the science and art of integrating technical components into a coherent system that is optimally adapted to its social function. His advice, not only on technical matters but also on matters of organization, management strategy, and even ethics, was much sought after by important government and private advisory committees. He was a member of the national academies of engineering and science.
Melvin DeGroote (1895-1963; 1915 BS, 1942 MS, 1955 DSc honorary, chemical engineering)
Melvin DeGroote is recognized as one of America’s greatest inventors. Honored by Time magazine's 2000 millennium issue as being second to only Thomas Edison in the number of patents issued to him, DeGroote obtained more than 950 patents on his inventions.
Most of his discoveries focused on chemical de-emulsifiers that separate crude oil from impurities, without which most of the oil pumped in the US for the last century would have been too corrosive for pipelines or tankers to transport. He also invented the chemical recipe that allows chocolate to stick to ice cream, leading to the Eskimo pie.
DeGroote earned his bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Ohio State in 1915. He also earned a professional degree in chemical engineering in 1942 and an honorary Doctorate of Science in 1955, both from Ohio State.
Harry Drackett (1885-1948; 1907 BS chemical engineering)
The creation of Windex is credited to CBE alumnus Harry Drackett, who was a member of the department’s second graduating class in 1907. Drackett developed Windex in 1933 as an employee of the Cincinnati-based industrial and home cleaning products company his parents had founded, P.W. Drackett & Sons. Due to its convenience and successful advertising, Windex soon became the first successful glass cleaner on the market. In the display case on the third floor of Koffolt Laboratories, there is a bottle of Windex labelled "Drackett Professionals" along with a copy of Drackett's thesis.
Drackett remained active with Ohio State, serving on many boards and committees following graduation. He chaired the Ohio State Alumni Advisory Board for ten years. Drackett Tower, a residence hall which is viewable from the CBEC 6th floor lounge, opened in 1965 in recognition of his service.
Kurt Dubowski (1921-2017; 1947 MS, 1949 PhD chemical engineering)
Kurt Dubowski was an international leader in toxicology and forensic science who in 2010 was cited by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences as one of the most inspirational figures in the field for the last 30 years.
His pioneering research on measuring ethyl alcohol in biological fluids became the foundation for the Breathalyzer and substance abuse testing used in forensics worldwide, and he provided expertise in many high-profile forensic toxicology cases, such as the death of Marilyn Monroe.
Dubowski earned his MS in 1947 and his PhD in 1949, both in chemical engineering. Working with Ohio State's College of Medicine, his PhD was interdisciplinary—highly unusual at the time.
Dubowski became a firm believer in the value of interdisciplinary research, and he encouraged students in CBE's graduate program to think in those terms.
Story inspired by a March 15, 2023 article in The New York Times Magazine by Steven Johnson