A Brief History
On November 16, 1938, the psychedelic drug LSD was fist synthesized in Basel, Switzerland by scientist Albert Hofmann, a genius not to be confused with 1960’s American radical Abbie Hoffman. Hofmann was so smart he was declared the Greatest Living Genius by the Daily Telegraph Newspaper (tied for 1st place on the list of 100 geniuses with Tim Berners-Lee). Unfortunately, Hofmann’s invention of the manner to synthesize LSD gave the world a powerful drug with no particular good use, but plenty of potential for misuse. Sometimes things turn out that way, and today we examine 5 geniuses that gave us discoveries or inventions that did not work out so well.
Questions for Students (and others): Who would you add to the list? What inventions are you aware of that have ended up actually hurting mankind instead of helping? Do you wish nuclear weapons were never invented?
1. Albert Hofmann, LSD.
While working for Sandoz Laboratories (which is now part of Novartis), Hofmann was studying a medicinal plant (Drimia maritima, also called Squill) along with a fungus called Ergot, when he isolated the compound lysergic acid diethylamide, better known by its common name, LSD. Hofmann accidentally discovered the hallucinogenic properties of LSD when he touched his mouth after touching the compound. Impressed by the experience, he then intentionally took his newly invented drug and became the first known human to trip on LSD. Hofmann continued his scientific work and discovered other compounds, while continuing to dabble in taking LSD, something he referred to as “a sacred drug.” His work included studies of other medicinal plants and hallucinogenic mushrooms, but alas, his great discovery of LSD was not the miracle drug he had hoped it would be in the treatment of respiratory and circulatory problems while having no impact on a fetus. He later published (among his many other books and articles) LSD: Mein Sorgenkind (LSD: My Problem Child). Problem child is right, as LSD never did find a legitimate medical use, although the American CIA (MK Ultra) and perhaps others examined its usefulness as a truth serum or disabling substance. In fact, LSD became by the 1960’s a common illegally produced and used drug, made at home by amateur drug lab people. A 2017 survey found that 10% of Americans had at least tried LSD once in their lives.
2. Thomas Midgley, leaded gasoline.
Midgley was working for General Motors with his fellow Ohioan, Charles Kettering (second only to Thomas Edison in patents awarded) when he came up with adding Tetraethyllead to gasoline to prevent “knocking,” which is pre-detonation of the fuel air mixture because of compression before the spark from the spark plug fires, causing a rough running inefficient engine that might just blow up. The addition of “ethyl” as the company called the stuff (or TEL for short) raised the octane of the gasoline and allowed higher compression engines which meant more power for a given size engine. In 1922, Midgley was given the coveted Nichols Medal for his discovery, one of many awards he received in his “illustrious” career. Midgley and others should have taken a clue from the fact that Midgley had to take a recuperative vacation in 1923 to recover from lead poisoning! From the time General Motors and the oil companies started producing leaded gasoline until the US finally outlawed the toxic stuff in the 1970’s, gradually easing the public into using only unleaded gasoline, we were all exposed to tons and tons of lead in automobile and truck exhaust, as well as virtually all gasoline powered engines. Workers in plants producing the TEL suffered horrific illnesses from exposure to lead, and the public at large was adversely affected by inhaling the toxic metal. By 1996 all use of leaded gasoline was outlawed in the US for road going vehicles, and little of the stuff is used at all today. Europe was a little slower to get rid of the terrible fuel additive.
3.Thomas Midgely, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
Yes, the same guy as listed above. Undoubtedly a scientific genius, Midgley successfully worked on many projects and garnered numerous awards for his work, but unfortunately he did not foresee the environmental problems some of his discoveries would cause. Back in the 1920’s the Frigidaire division of General Motors was a leading maker of air conditioning and refrigeration units, and the need to find a better refrigerant gas became pressing. The ammonia and propane usually used was highly toxic and highly flammable respectively, and when Midgley came up with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as a replacement the stuff seemed like manna from heaven. Non-flammable and with no immediate ill effects from exposure, the refrigerant gas was named “Freon” by General Motors and became the industry mainstay of air conditioners and refrigeration units world wide. Not only as a refrigerant gas, Freon was also used in many aerosol products as the propellant gas. Midgley earned the Perkin Medal in 1937 for this not so great invention. Not so great because by the 1980’s scientists found that the mass release of chlorofluorocarbons by humans was depleting the Ozone Layer of the upper atmosphere, a layer necessary for the preservation of life on Earth! (The Ozone Layer protects us from certain radiation from the Sun.) The Montreal Protocol of August 1987 got most of the world on the same page in order to phase out use of CFC’s, but it turns out the common replacement compounds, known as HFC’s (hydrofluorocarbons) have their own environmental hazards and have since been limited by the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 (which went into effect in 2005). Poor Tom Midgley! He though he was doing us all a favor and he ended up getting a scientific black eye.
4. Charles Romley Alder Wright, Heroin.
Born in 1844, in Essex, England, Wright was a renowned chemist and physicist and was a founder of the Royal Institute of Chemistry (which became the Royal Society of Chemistry in 1980) in 1877. While working as a researcher for London’s St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School, Wright studied various opiate derivatives, and became the first person to synthesize diamorphine (later named Heroin). Wright’s discovery was part of a search for a non-addictive replacement for morphine as a medical pain killing drug, but of course Heroin ended up being not only much stronger than morphine, but also more addictive. The Bayer Company of Germany continued Wright’s research after Wright died in 1894, and by 1898 marketed the drug as “Heroin” for treatment of pain and coughs. It did not take long for the public to find out just how dangerous this powerful drug was, and Bayer ceased manufacture in 1913. Unfortunately, Wright had unleashed a drug scourge on the world and Heroin today is a commonly misused illegal drug that kills thousands of people each year, as well as lining the coffers of rich drug lords and dealers.
5. Henry Shrapnel, Shrapnel Shell.
Shrapnel was a British Lieutenant General (born 1761, died 1842) most famous for inventing an exploding artillery shell that sent lead shot flying in all directions, greatly enhancing the lethality of the artillery fire. His invention used round (spherical) cannon balls filled with gunpowder and lead shot, while his ideas have been modified where the outer iron or steel casing of the artillery shell shatters when it explodes, sending metal shards in all directions. Technically only the shells that include the projectiles inside are throwing “Shrapnel” at the enemy, while the exploding shells that use the shell casings to do the dirty work are launching “shards” or “splinters.” Regardless of the terminology, getting hit with shrapnel (as such metal is normally referred to as) is just as deadly. In fact, something like 75% of battlefield casualties are caused by shrapnel/splinters. Other munitions have been adapted to use Shrapnel’s invention, such as landmines and hand grenades. In 1814 a grateful Britain awarded Henry Shrapnel £1200 per year (worth about 60 times that amount in today’s Pounds) for life for giving the British Army and Royal Navy such an effective weapon. Sadly, bureaucratic snafus resulted in incomplete payment of the stipend as awarded. (Note: We are using Shrapnel as the example of all those geniuses that gave us military weapons that plague mankind today, such as Nuclear Bombs, Poison Gas, Landmines, Napalm, etc.)
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For more information, please see…
Crowley, Tom. Shrapnel Wounds: An Infantry Lieutenant’s Vietnam Memoir. Pacifica Military History, 2015.
Fernandez, Humberto, and Therissa, PhD. Heroin: Its History, Pharmacology, and Treatment. Hazelden Publishing, 2011.
Hofmann, Albert. LSD My Problem Child: Reflections on Sacred Drugs, Mysticism and Science. MAPS.org, 2009.
Midgley, Thomas. From the Periodic Table to Production: The Life of Thomas Midgley, Jr., the Inventor of Ethyl Gasoline and Freon Refrigerants. Stargazer Pub Co, 2001.
The featured image in this article, a photography by Psychonaught of pink elephant blotters containing LSD, has been released by the copyright holder of this work into the public domain. This applies worldwide.