Historical Research - Myths and Reality
Early Greek historians approached their work with
two very distinct motivations, Around 430 BC,
Herodotus, the father of history,
wrote to honor the heroes of the
Trojan Wars. Thucydides wrote the History of the
Peloponnesian War thirty years later. He avoided
romantic approaches because he was interested in
analyzing the past in order to learn from it.
to recall these two motivations, which are both
common among historians through the ages, as we
examine one of the most contentious areas in
modern history -- the development of
tetraethyllead (TEL) as a gasoline additive.
Between the 1920s
and the 1970s, many historians saw the
development of TEL as exemplary, high quality
scientific research and portrayed it in a
strongly romantic and heroic style. But in the
1990s, new documents have shed a harsher light on
TEL research. Today, many historians believe that
the natural impulse towards heroic myth got in
the way of lessons that should have been learned.
An example of the
heroic approach is found in a paper by Thomas
Hughes, who called TEL development "a
beautiful [example of] deliberately planned
research." G.M. engineers Kettering and
Midgley "tried out all elements possible in
a so-called Edisonian style,"Hughes said.
Other historians saw leaded gasoline as the final
step in a progression of discovery, a
"success story" with only one possible
outcome. The public health controversy was
dismissed as a wildly lurid and sensational
sideshow of no importance.
In recent years,
historians have asked new questions. For
Was GM management unaware of the risks of
manufacturing and using TEL, as they claimed?
How accurate is the portrayal of the
public dimension of the 1920s environmental
Was TEL the product of a systematic,
scientific search through all possible
alternatives? Were there other choices?
How accurate was the public health
research used by GM to support TEL during the
How did TEL originally fit into GMs
long range plans to continue in business even if
oil supplies ran out?
historians lacked data on which to raise these
questions, much less reach any conclusions. Most
government documents were missing or destroyed.
GMs publicly available archives were three
steps removed from historical validity. They were
tertiary that is, they mostly consisted of
memos about memos. Unlike most other major
inventions, none of the original lab notebooks,
draft papers or internal reports were available
That year, 40
boxes of disorganized files from Midgleys
Dayton, Ohio office were given to Kettering
University (formerly General Motors Institute).
These files, though incomplete, have enough of
the early drafts and confidential memos to give
an outline of the research program for the first
documents demonstrate that: GM managers were
aware of the health risks in the early 1920s;
that they hurried production recklessly; that GM
research reports were censored when they pointed
the way to less toxic alternatives; that GM and
Ethyl officials claimed in scientific meetings
and government hearings that no alternatives
existed; that TEL was profitable but a difficult
technical choice among many alternatives; that
its use was supported by deceptive public health
research in the 1930s-1960s; and that Kettering
and Midgleys original special motivation
for TEL was to boost engine compression ratios
and ease the switch to non-petroleum fuels when
oil ran out.
New research also
showed that the public health controversy of the
1920s was based on legitimate concerns.
Ironically, these concerns were entirely
forgotten by the 1980s, and nearly identical
arguments were replayed in public, scientific and
governmental arenas. The TEL controversy is a
good example of Santayanas famous aphorism:
Those who cannot remember the past are
condemned to repeat it.
interpretations of the history of TEL, which were
rather at odds with the mythological histories,
have now stood up to academic challenges and they
are beginning to emerge in popular literature and
The process of
research, discovery, weighing facts and then
submitting conclusions for debate is essential in
history, science, and other areas of serious
scholarship. Researchers try to approach their
material without preconceptions, follow the facts
and submit their conclusions to other scholars
for refutation or validation. In this process,
myths will be uprooted and heroic reputations
will betarnished. Not everyone will approve.
There may be historians who decry
revisionism, implying that history is
being altered from some hypothetical original
revisionism may seem reprehensible. For example,
few people do not cringe to hear claims that the
Holocaust of World War II did not occur. Yet such
claims have fallen because they ignored facts,
not because they attempted to revise a history
which we must leave cemented in place. On the
contrary, it is far better for the facts to be
challenged from time to time in order to retrace
our steps and be as certain of their accuracy as
may be possible.
History, then, is
not a static collection of well known facts
anymore than science is an unchanging description
of the physical world. History represents views
of the past that may change, grow and coalesce
around facts that may only become available
decades after events in question. New facts may
diminish the luster of our heroic narratives, and
thismay make an historian unpopular. So it goes.
said, the job of an historian is not to win the
applause of the moment, but to write history
as a possession for all time.