Many years ago I made a comment at the dinner table about the telephone answering machine (remember those?) being the greatest invention since sliced bread.  My daughter who was probably eight at the time responded, “Dad, if that’s the greatest; then what was the worst?”

Why is it that kids have a knack of posing questions that actually require thought?  My statement obviously wasn’t well thought-out so I dodged her question, but I knew the subject would come up again so I did a bit a research.

A few days later I admitted to Kate I was being facetious and that upon a little reflection I thought the greatest invention of all time was actually the printing press, citing how mass-produced printing was the cause of more technological advancement than any other factor on planet earth up until then.

Subsequent to Gutenberg’s invention, the world, and Europe in particular, experienced a revolution in communication unlike anything the planet had ever seen.  While not the only contributing factor to this phenomenon, the effects of mass-produced printing were beyond anything the world had previously experienced. Gutenberg’s process was truly world shattering.

Having said that and with perfect hindsight, a good argument can be made that fire was more influential in the history of mankind; but then fire wasn’t invented, men simply learned how to control it.  Some feel the wheel should take top billing and that too is difficult to disagree with. Still others proffer that the paper or gunpowder or even the common nail could make claim as the greatest invention ever—good arguments all.

So perhaps the answer to the question depends upon whom we ask, e.g., a Millennial might answer the Internet, the personal computer, or even the automobile – and while no one doubts the significance of each, the question needs to put into context.  Nonetheless, I’ll stick with the printing press with a slight nod to the wheel and paper as close runner-ups.

But back to my daughter’s question – after clarifying what in my opinion was the greatest invention, I told her there was little doubt in my mind as to what was the worst invention of all time; a ‘dishonor’ that goes to a compound developed by Thomas Migley Jr., an obscure inventor from Akron, Ohio.

During the 1920s refrigeration was a problem in the U.S.  Refrigerators of that time used dangerous gases that had a distinct tendency to leak.  In fact, in one of the worst recorded incidents involving faulty refrigeration, more than hundred people died in a Cleveland Ohio hospital due to leaking refrigerants.

So it was that Thomas Migley set out to create a gas that was stable, non-corrosive and safe to breathe. What he came up with was chlorofluorocarbons, better known as CFCs, which soon went into mass production and have been used in numerous applications from automobile air conditioners to refrigerators to deodorant sprays.

But there are two significant problems associated with chlorofluorocarbons: First, once released into the atmosphere they devour the ozone layer that protects us from the sun’s UV rays, and secondly, they tend to hang around for a while—about a century or so.  That means every escaped molecule of CFC refrigerant manufactured since the 1920s remains in the air to this day and is wreaking havoc with our atmosphere.

To exacerbate the matter, ozone is not very abundant in our atmosphere and if spread evenly over the globe would probably measure about one eighth of an inch thick, so its destruction is not something to take lightly.  Not only that, but one pound of CFCs can annihilate several thousand pounds of atmospheric ozone.

To make matters even worse, CFCs are heat sponges, and molecule for molecule contributes more to the greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.  How much more you ask?  How about by a factor of 10,000!  Yup, I think CFCs unequivocally qualify as the worst invention of the 20thcentury and perhaps all of history.

Quote of the day:  “Life is short, break the rules, forgive quickly, kiss slowly, love truly, laugh uncontrollably, and never regret anything that makes you smile”—Mark Twain




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