Cautionary Tales – The inventor who nearly ended the world


Thomas Midgley’s innovations precipitated his personal loss of life, hastened the deaths of thousands and thousands of individuals all over the world, and really practically extinguished all life on land. 

Midgley and his employers didn’t got down to poison the air with leaded gasoline or wreck the ozone layer with CFCs – however whereas these dire penalties had been unintended… may they’ve been anticipated? 

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It’s produced by Ryan Dilley, with assist from Courtney Guarino and Emily Vaughn.

The sound design and unique music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Because of the crew at Pushkin Industries, together with Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Royston Beserve, Maggie Taylor, Nicole Morano, Daniella Lakhan and Maya Koenig.

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Additional studying and listening

On Thomas Midgley

Charles Kettering “Biographical Memoir of Thomas Midgley Jr

Fred Pearce “Inventor hero was a one-man environmental catastropheNew Scientist 7 June 2017

Edelmann, F.T. 2016 (31:viii): The life and legacy of Thomas Midgley Jr. Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania 150(1): 45–49.

On CFCs and the Ozone Layer

Sharon Roan Ozone Disaster

Press Launch on the award of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Paul Crutzen, Mario Molina, and F Sherwood Rowland

New York Occasions obituary of Joseph Farman

On Lead

Mark Sutton “Pb or not Pb: the poisonous query of leaded gasolineChemistry World 20 December 2021

Deceit and Denial: The Lethal Politics of Industrial Air pollution, Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, 1987

UNEP press launch on leaded petrol

Tom Whipple “Leaded Petrol reduces intelligence a long time later” The Occasions March 2017

On Unanticipated Penalties

Robert Okay Merton The Unanticipated Penalties of Purposive Social Motion. American Sociological Evaluate, Vol. 1, No. 6 (Dec., 1936), pp. 894-904

Frank de Zwart, Unintended however not Unanticipated Penalties, Idea and Society 44(3), April 2015

Nitin Nohria and Hemant Taneka “Managing the Unintended Penalties of Your ImprovementsHarvard Enterprise Evaluate 19 January 2021



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