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Ethyl: A History of the Corporation and the People who Made It, by Joseph C. Robert, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 1983. This 448 p. paperback tells the complex story of Ethyl Corporation. Ethyl was the producer of tetraethyllead, the gasoline additive, invented by Charles Kettering in Dayton Research Laboratories, and originally developed by Dupont and General Motors (and Standard Oil of New Jersey). In 1961 when it came time to sell, Albemarle Paper Co. of Virginia bought the business and changed its name to Ethyl Corporation. The book follows the story of tetraethyl lead from birth to death. When leaded gasoline ended, Ethyl changed its names back to Albemarle.

Albemarle Paper Company was founded in Richmond, VA in 1887. The company prospered, but was conservatively managed. Expansion began under Floyd Gottwald, who became president in 1941. First contact with Ethyl Corporation was initiated in 1958 because of Albermarle’s interest in polyethylene for packaging. The executives involved found themselves compatible and of like mind. Albemarle soon undertook acquisition of Ethyl, a company five times their size, a case of Jonah swallowing the whale.

Ethyl Gasoline Corporation was founded in 1924 to manufacture tetraethyl lead, which had been discovered by Charles Kettering in his Dayton Research Laboratories. The Kettering story here is abbreviated. He was one of the most prolific inventors of the 20th Century, often compared to Thomas Edison. He was born in Loudonville, OH, and studied electrical engineering at Ohio State University. He worked for National Cash Register Company, where short duty electric motors was developed to power electric cash registers. In 1912, he used the same concept in the auto electric starter for the Cadillac. Engine knock was blamed on the electric starter provoking his interest. He had developed the Dayton Light Engine to generate power for farm lighting systems. Fire regulations required that it be designed to run on less flammable kerosene, but that resulted in engine knock–requiring the engine compression be reduced with a corresponding reduction in power.

The search for a suitable antiknock compound is told in detail. Iodine was the first discovered antiknock compound. It was soon followed by aniline and compounds of selenium, tellurium, and tin. Eventually materials lower in the periodic table were found more effective, suggesting lead as a promising candidate. When tested tetraethyllead was far more active than any previous material. The critical test was run on Dec 9, 1921. The discovery was presented to the Society of Automotive Engineers in June, 1922, and to the American Chemical Society in September. Thomas Midgley and Thomas Boyd were the authors.

Many details of the Kettering story seem to have been omitted. His Dayton Research Laboratories eventually became Dayton Electric and then Delco division of GM. Apparently he continued as head of the TEL business until it became successful. Then Ethyl was separated from Dayton Research and Kettering stayed with Dayton Research. Eventually he became VP of Research at GM. He is said to have been well rewarded for his inventions. He is donor to the Sloan Kettering Foundation. Kettering University is named after him.

Making TEL practical required the addition of a scavenger to prevent accumulation of lead deposits in the engine. Bromine compounds were most effective, but Dow Chemical was the only producer. They extracted it from brine solutions in Midland, MI. Dupont (then a major [38%] stockholder in General Motors, Pierre S Dupont was President of GM) was called on to pilot a seawater extraction process developed by Midgley. A shipboard plant on the SS Ethyl was of limited success, but demonstrated the concept. In the 1930s, Ethyl-Dow jv undertook seawater extraction at Kure Beach, NC. (In 1943, a German submarine fired five shells at this plant, but all missed.) GM contracted with Dupont to begin production of TEL in 1922. The first Ethyl gasoline was sold in Dayton, OH on Feb 1, 1923. A red dye (Sudan IV) was added to distinguish Ethyl gas. Standard Oil of Indiana entered into the first sales contract giving them exclusive dealership in their region for five years.

Standard Oil of New Jersey began investigating antiknock compounds following early reports of Kettering’s work in 1919. They invented a more economical process to make tetraethyllead consisting of the reaction of sodium lead amalgam with ethyl chloride rather than ethyl bromide used in the Dupont process. GM and Standard of NJ merged their patent interests in the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation in August, 1924. The name was changed to Ethyl Corporation in 1942.

The toxicity of lead compounds had been anticipated from the beginning, and precautions were thought to be adequate, but in developing manufacturing processes, 15 deaths are attributed to accidental lead poisoning. Most were at the Standard Oil Bayway, NJ semiworks, but some occurred at the Ethyl labs in Dayton. Midgley himself went to Florida for a month in February, 1923, to recuperate. He returned complaining he was still not back to normal. The first deaths occurred in the summer of 1924, in Dayton. An accident at the Bayway semiworks on Oct 25, 1924, resulted in exposure of 40 workers, five of whom died; some became insane and had to be restrained in straight jackets prior to their deaths.

The issue of lead in exhaust gases was studied in detail. A Bureau of Mines study found no evidence of human health effects. The US Surgeon General, Hugh Cumming’ called for a conference on the toxicity of TEL in gasoline to be held May 20, 1925. Ethyl suspended sale of Ethyl gasoline pending results of the conference. The conference recommended a detailed study, which was published in 1926. It found no health hazard to the public. Ethyl resumed gas sales on May 1, 1926.

Iron carbonyl was considered as a possible antiknock compound in the 1920s. It was discovered by BASF in Germany. Discussions when far enough for Dupont and BASF to enter into an agreement to divide the world market , but the oxide residue was abrasive to engines and fouled spark plugs. However, a 1927 technology exchange agreement between Standard of NJ and German interests (presumably IG Farben, which then included BASF, Bayer and Hoechst) became an issue during World War II when it made antiknock technology for high test aviation gasoline available to Nazi Germany. Standard Oil got in return hydrogenation technology to create gasoline from coal and synthetic rubber.

Ethyl soon began promoting Ethyl gasoline. In 1925, Ethyl hired a public relations expert to prepare articles for newspapers. Losses were reported for 1924-27, but thereafter the business was profitable. Global expansion soon followed first in Europe. A jv with IG Farben resulted in a joint plant in Germany in 1936. An unauthorized plant was also built by the Germans. A jv plant was built with Kuhlman in France in 1938; a jv plant with ICI in Britain in 1936. Canada and Mexico were supplied from plants in the US. Until 1937, all TEL was made for Ethyl by Dupont at Deepwater, NJ. In that year, Dupont constructed a second plant for Ethyl at Baton Rouge, LA. A third plant was built in Pasadena, TX on the Houston Ship Channel in 1952.

In 1943, antitrust action brought against Standard Oil of NJ resulted in reinterpretation of antitrust laws. Ethyl renegotiated its agreements with Associated Ethyl (later Octel) which supplied Ethyl products in Europe. Octel gained the license to manufacture TEL and took over several plants in Europe.

In 1947, patents and contracts expired and Dupont became an competitive supplier of TEL from its plant in Deepwater, NJ. By 1961, Houston Chemical, later part of PPG would enter the TEL business and Nalco soon followed.

In 1958, General Motors, Standard Oil, and Dupont began to consider the sale of Ethyl Corporation. They were concerned about antitrust action and with new competition that might reduce profitability. Ethyl was eager to find new ownership because the owners, especially Standard Oil, had repeatedly blocked efforts to diversify for fear of disturbing industry relationships. After discussions with various other chemical companies and the Hunt brothers talks began with Albemarle on Dec 29, 1961.

The story of the acquisition and financing it is told in detail. The deal was completed on Nov 30, 1962. Ethyl then promptly undertook a diversification program. Acquisitions included VisQueen (plastics, 1963), Bonnell (aluminum, 1966), Oxford (paper, 1967), IMCO (plastics, 1968), Capitol Products (aluminum, 1970), Flex Products (plastics, 1973), Elk Horn Coal (energy, 1973), VCA (plastics, 1974), Edwin Cooper (lubricant additives, 1975), Creative Dispenser Systems (1977), Hardwicke Chemical (specialty chemicals, 1978), and Massie Tool (plastics, 1979). The paper business was divested beginning in 1967 with the sale of most of it to Hoerner Waldorf Corporation; the rest was sold in 1969 as James River Paper Company.

The end of leaded gasoline had been anticipated with the rise of the environmental movement in the ‘60s. A study indicated that lead did not participate in smog formation. But the beginning of the end came in 1970 when General Motors announced that they would use catalytic converters on autos to reduce emissions. The platinum catalyst used was incompatible with lead in gasoline. Hence, unleaded gasoline was born. The oil industry objected because of the added investment needed for refineries to meet octane requirements without lead. Regulations issued by EPA in 1972 were challenged in court and finally reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 1976. By 1981, TEL sales were down by about two thirds at Ethyl and plants were shut down.

The decline of the TEL business left Ethyl as a manufacturer of specialty chemicals. They had ventured into aluminum alkyls after the Ziegler catalysts offered potential for low cost production of TEL. Out of this came related businesses such as linear alpha alcohol and linear alpha olefins, used especially in biodegradable detergents. A production and sales agreement with Proctor & Gamble resulted in the construction of an NTA plant in the era of non-phosphate detergents. But that plant was scrapped when EPA banned NTA. The plant in Magnolia, AR was originally constructed in 1969 as a jv with Great Lakes Chemical to extract bromine from brines in that area. That ended the Ethyl-Dow venture at Freeport, TX that had extracted bromine from seawater since 1937. Great Lakes interest was bought out in 1974. Magnolia became a specialty chemicals manufacturing site including alkyl dimethylamines, flame retardants, and pesticide intermediates.

The book ends with a summary of the Gottwald family, and an appendix including lists of directors, plant locations, financial figures, and references. In the ‘90s, the company changed its name back to Albemarle, now headquartered in Baton Rouge, LA.

Students of the chemical industry will find the discussion of research philosophy instructive. The question is raised why the old Ethyl Corporation maintained a first rate research department when they had no intention of investing in the technology discovered. The answer given–the first time I have seen this in print–is that broad gage research allowed them to hire competent professional and technical personnel and have them available to maintain the business when needed. If limited to tetaethyllead research, they would not be able to attract the quality desired. But unwillingness to invest in new technology (think Xerox and the personal computer) created morale problems as that reduced research to an academic exercise.

There was a time when companies took pride in the percentage of sales they invested in research. Business schools now teach that companies should view research as an investment and spend that money only when the expected gain justifies it. The current volume expresses the unspoken reality that much research exists to keep existing plants running. Of course those who view new technology as essential to their success value research and researchers more than those who merely wish to keep their chemicals business operating. Indexed.
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