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TEL wasn't always the frontrunner to solve the knocking problem common in early 20th-century automobile engines, according to "The Secret History of Lead," an exposé of the leaded gas industry published in The Nation in 2000.

The primary choice was ethanol, the corn derivative that has recently seen a resurgence as a clean-energy source and, coincidentally, is used today as an antiknock agent.

Like TEL, ethanol increases octane—the ability of gasoline to resist premature combustion, which causes the knocking sound—but it didn't promise much in the way of profit because it couldn't be patented. That was a disincentive for General Motors, says Jamie Lincoln Kitman, who won a medal from the group Investigative Reporters and Editors for the exposé, which is now being expanded into a book.

Charles Kettering, an Ohio-born engineer who invented the electric self-starter that replaced the hand crank, took it upon himself to find a money-making solution to the knocking problem. The noise had emerged in Cadillacs outfitted with his self-starting technology.

Kitman says Kettering's ambition took on greater urgency after the copper-cooled Chevrolet—another car marketed on his invention, the air-cooled engine—was pulled off the market.

It was in GM's Dayton lab, which Kettering oversaw, that TEL was found to reduce the engine's pinging sound, thereby cementing its inclusion in gasoline for decades to come.

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