Feb 4, 2013

Thomas Midgley Jr. and The Pulleys


By Josh Oakley

Note: This doesn't fit perfectly into the pop culture vein we have going around here, but our slogan is "Pop Culture, Etc." so consider this part of that etc.


Thomas Midgley Jr. was a smart man, far more intelligent than I. He was a member of a team of chemists that introduced the tetraethyl lead additive to gasoline, which had the positive outcome of increasing fuel efficiency. His degree had been acquired at Cornell University, and he won numerous awards over the course of his life. He was, simply, an accomplished man. 

Of course, over time, as those that believe in the harmful nature of environmental degradation know (we leave, here, readers that find themselves born in the wrong age and wish to return to the simplicity of pre-"round Earth" theory that has gained such wide acceptance), Midgley's advancements in his field have been largely detrimental. This however, does not erase his intellectual ability, at least not outside of the ethical playground.

Midgley, at 51, contracted polio. Jonas Salk's vaccine was, at the time, fourteen years away, so Midgley was forced to think on his feet. Or, more accurately, think on his back, as he developed a system of pulleys that would aid his departure from bed each day. This intricate machine was well developed, save for one fatal flaw. The machine was fatal.

Yes, Midgley died at the age of 55, not from polio, or guilt over the consequences of his work in the gasoline business, but instead by his own accidental hand. This was neither the first nor last time a man would die due to his own creation (William Nelson, killed by the motorized bicycle he built in 1903, was remembered by the New York Times as "an inventor of much promise"). 

Perhaps Midgley took his life on purpose. I am not the first to suggest this, and it seems plausible, as man is wont to end suffering for any number of reasons. Polio would be far more reasonable, it seems, than many motives behind suicide. Of course, the motivations behind one man's taking of his life could seem ridiculous to another man, but be understandable in a certain context. Seppuku is a perfect example of this, as honor does not mean much in 21st century America. (There is no way to quantify or monetize honor, unfortunately).

I do think the interest of Midgley's ending grows, though, if his death was indeed a mistake. This is not quite a Nixon-ian story of a man taken down by hubris. Midgley did not mean for his contraption to revolutionize the world. Rather, he wished to fix a problem he had, and instead, expanded said issue to its natural conclusion.

"The best laid plans of mice and men" and all that, but something more human than the wistfulness that platitude implies. Midgley was not creating a vaccine. His invention was hardly a plan at all. Rather, it was no more complicated than the idea of taking a shower at night as to maximize time in the morning. Or, to put it more frankly, Midgley's set of pulleys was similar to the way we go about imagining.

Dreaming of a better life is, of course, in no way a negative approach to existence. Actually, it is one of the few ways I have found to maintain some semblance of sanity. When, at night, the stressors of the day weigh down, and the next day's plans unwelcomely begin to waft in, it is far more convenient to pretend oneself entering the stage of a late night talk show to promote the movie you wrote, directed and starred in that features some beautiful, talented starlet (let us say, for the sake of envisioning this scenario and relating to my own experiences, Jennifer Lawrence) who you are now dating!?!? Is that a scandal I smell??? The tabloids will be all over this, but in a fun way, not like that time that Alec Baldwin clocked that paparazzi, oh no, these photographers just worship you, and now, what is this? You can finally announce your new project? It's the new Woody Allen movie? Oh, this is marvelous! And you and Jennifer are to be married in the spring? Why, good lord!

And suddenly the alarm goes off and it is 6 a.m. and you have to force yourself to the coffee machine (a Mr. Coffee because how are you ever going to afford anything better) and you are able to do this, to convince yourself out of bed yet again and with the incredible strength you use to survive through another day you have avoided the strangling nature of the pulleys you installed. But the pulleys will get you. If they took Thomas Midgley Jr., they will have no problem with you.

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