Earth Day is observed by 192 countries around the world. It’s a day dedicated to spreading awareness of humanity’s effects on the planet and the million little ways we can counteract the bad. It supports everything, from minor changes like carpooling to work or buying locally to reduce car emissions, to major orchestrated protests and walks to draw attention to pollution and alternative sources of energy.

Everyone knows about Earth Day.

But how much do you know about its origins?

It was founded in 1970 by, then, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. He was concerned about the health of the planet and drew some much needed attention to all the negative things people were getting away with. The culminating event that inspired Nelson to start his campaign to spread environmental awareness was the Santa Barbara oil spill in ’69.

But that has nothing on, to quote environmental historian J. R. McNeill, the one man who “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.”

Thomas Midgley, Jr.

Photo of Thomas, Midgley, Jr.

Unless you’ve taken fairly specific history classes, maybe one that focused on the creation and use of certain less than environmentally friendly chemicals, you probably don’t know who Thomas Midgley, Jr., is. He was a chemist and mechanical engineer who worked at General Motors after WWI. He solved the annoying problem of engine knocking and found a safe alternative to the toxic chemicals that were used in early refrigerators and air conditioning units.

Sadly, it wouldn’t be until after his death the effects of his “solutions” would be known.

Leaded Gasoline

In the early 20th century, cars were rather new. Engineers were still working out kinks in their designs, seatbelts wouldn’t be invented until after WWII, but they were everywhere. And everywhere they went, there was an annoying “knocking” sound coming from the engine. Engine knocking occurs when the gas in the engine is compressed past its ignition point, causing it to ignite or “knock”, when it’s not supposed to. It was damaging the engine, it didn’t sound nice, and it was a symptom of other problems with early engines that no one could figure out how to fix.

Enter one Thomas Midgley, Jr.

Midgley figured out that by adding lead to gas, he could render the “knocking” silent and reduce wear on the engine. Other scientists and chemists tried to warn Midgley about the dangers of lead poisoning, but he figured that since most people weren’t going to be dousing themselves in the leaded gasoline, they should be fine.


Depending on your age, you may not remember the hole in the ozone layer caused by Freon that everyone was talking about in the 90s. Freon is the trade name given to a specific chloroflourocarbon (CFC) that was used for everything from fire suppressors to Styrofoam to cleaning supplies and hairspray. They were first invented in the 1890s, but it wasn’t until our friend Midgley proposed using Freon as a substitute for the very toxic chemicals used in refrigerators that it became a common household name.

Everyone thought Freon was safe because it was so stable, and it is. The problem started when Freon made it up into the stratosphere, where the sun’s UV radiation was strong enough to break apart the atoms, allowing them to break apart and bond with atmospheric ozone, destroying the protective ozone layer.

Earth Day Works

How does all of that relate to Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day?

Most of his concerns about the planet stemmed from the very noticeable effects caused by Midgley’s legacy. Nelson saw the effects of lead poisoning and Freon, on top of all the other bad habits people had fallen into, and decided to step up.

Nelson was partly inspired by the anti-war protests held by students and realized channeling their energy into Earth Day would ensure its success. He worked on the idea of Earth Day, gaining support from both Democrats and Republicans, and worked closely with colleges to promote it. April 22 was chosen because it happened to fall between Spring Break and final exams.

The first Earth Day was April 22, 1970. Millions of Americans took part in it. Earth Day brought separate groups fighting against toxic dumps or pesticides or loss of habitats together, lending each other their voices and common values.

As a result of Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded and published a schedule to remove lead from gas in 1974. As of ’96, leaded gas is illegal on any roads. CFCs, including Freon, will be completely phased out by, hopefully, 2030. The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act all owe their thanks to Earth Day.

Nelson was able to start all of this almost 50 years ago because he saw what Midgley’s legacy of leaded gas and Freon was doing to the world and decided enough was enough.

Thank you, Thomas Midgley, Jr. Without your contribution, we wouldn’t have Earth Day.


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