Inventors Killed By Their Inventions

by Geoffrey Stanton

Invention: it separates man from beast. Sure, some of you are saying "But Geoff, otters use rocks to break clam shells, and even crows can use sticks to get stuff out of jars!" Yeah, well, get at me when they invent something with four-wheel drive, then we'll talk. Still, the march of technological advancement is a treacherous one, and the road to progress is littered with bones. Being an inventor can be a risky pursuit, no less because there's a fine line between genius and madness. With that in mind, Private Island Entertainment has put together a modest memorial to those unconventional souls whose burning passion for invention ended up consuming them.

10. Karel Soucek


Karel Soucek, born shortly after the end of World War II in Czechoslovakia, grew up in Ontario, Canada, and began working as a stuntman and daredevil. A man of big dreams, he soon set his sights on the ultimate prize in daredevilry: plummeting over Niagara Falls in a barrel of his own design. He achieved this goal in 1984, emerging from his contraption with only minor injuries. Though he spent over $45,000 building the barrel, filming the attempt and paying fines for going over the falls without a license, he quickly made that investment back, thanks to the media attention that his stunt generated. Intoxicated by his own success, Soucek made plans to open a museum at Niagara Falls commemorating his successful descent over the waterfall. He planned to finance this project by entering his barrel once more and being dropped into a water tank from 180 feet above the Houston Astrodome. Unfortunately for poor Karel, he was released too early and struck the rim of the tank instead of landing in the middle. Though he was still alive when he was cut out of his homemade death tube, he died before the end of the stunt show.

9. Alexander  Bogdanov


Alexander Bogdanov was a man of many hats--philosopher, economist, physician, sci-fi novelist and Bolshevik revolutionary. Though his accomplishments in life are many and diverse, one of the most interesting is certainly his pioneering work in the field of blood transfusion. Hoping to uncover the secret of eternal youth, and perhaps even to revive the recently deceased Communist leader Vladimir Lenin, Bogdanov founded the world's first scientific institution devoted exclusively to the study of swapping the vital fluid. His work began in 1924, and continued with marked success until one fateful day in April of 1928, when he recieved the blood of a student infected with malaria and tuberculosis, dying shortly thereafter (interestingly, the infected student himself made a full recovery). Several theories exist as to how Bogdanov made such a fateful mistake: some believe that it was a mere oversight, caused by an incomplete knowledge of incompatible blood types; others, however, cite his agitated political writings around the time of his death and speculate that the transfusion of blood from a sick donor may have been a deliberate act of suicide.


8. Horace Lawson Hunley


These days, the name Horace Lawson Hunley is likely to be unfamiliar to all but the most studied buffs of Civil War and Naval history. But in 1863, Mr. Hunley accomplished something amazing: he created the world's first combat-ready submarine. Powered (unbelievably) by a series of hand-cranks, the Fish Boat (posthumously renamed the H. L. Hunley after its inventor) was armed in front with a long metal spar carrying a barbed torpedo. In a combat situation, this submarine was supposed to target an enemy vessel from the surface, dive underwater to ram it with the torpedo spar, and  then retreat to a safe distance from which to detonate it (either by electrical or mechanical means--the evidence which remains on this point is inconclusive). Tragically, this marvelous idea--decades ahead of its time--never got the chance to develop fully, so eager were the Confederate Generals to see it in action. The H.L. Hunley actually sank three separate times--twice during testing, and one last time during its only field mission against the U.S.S. Housatonic. Hunley himself was aboard the vessel when it failed to surface during its second military field test, and thus died without ever getting to see his invention in combat. All told, the H.S. Hunley killed 26 people during its brief and tumultuous life--five Union soldiers aboard the U.S.S. Housatonic, and twenty-one of its own crew. Still, it holds the distinction of being the first submarine in history to sink an enemy vessel. I bet Hunley would've been proud.

7. Ismail ibn Hammad al-Jawhari


Ismail ibn Hammad al-Jawhari was a 10th Century Islamic scholar living in modern-day Kazakhstan. Though most famous for his contribution to the behemoth 4,000-entry Arabic dictionary entitled "The Crown of Language and the Correct Arabic", we're honoring him here today for a slightly less momentous achievement. Somewhere at the beginning of the 11th Century, Ismail set aside his scholarly pursuits in favor of a new endeavor: achieving human flight. Possibly inspired by earlier successful glider flights, al-Jawhari leapt from the roof of a mosque in Nishapur to test what sources describe as "a set of wooden wings". Unfortunately, Ismail's gift for linguistics did not make him a particularly accomplished aeronautic engineer, and he subsequently plummeted to his death. His magnum opus, the great Arabic dictionary, had to be finished by his students. 

6. William Bullock


Born in 1813 in Greenville, NY, William Bullock was an American inventor with a particular gift for mechanics. In the first half of his life he had invented a myriad of helpful agricultural and industrial devices, including a mechanical shingle-cutter, cotton and hay press, seed planter, and grain drill, before turning his attention to the world of newspaper printing. His most famous invention was an improvement of Richard March Hoe's rotary press, called the web rotary press. Bullock's design incorporated large rollers to continuously feed large sheets of paper into the machine, thus eliminating the tiresome necessity of laboriously hand-feeding the old machines. Tragically, his crowning achievement would also prove his undoing after he was the victim of a freak accident involving the press. While trying to kick a driving belt back onto a pulley, Bullock found his leg caught in the machine and crushed by the force of its powerful mechanisms. After several days the leg began developing gangrene, and Bullock underwent an operation to have it amputated. He died on the operating table, a victim of his own revolutionary printing press.

5. Franz Reichelt


Franz Reichelt was a tailor with ambition. Born during an era when aviation was in its infancy and aircraft-related casualties were a regular occurrence, Reichelt developed a keen interest in perfecting a lightweight parachute that could save lives. After several early successful attempts dropping dummies equipped with folding silk parachutes, Franz set his sights on a higher prize: a fully functional flight suit that could balloon out to function as a parachute in case of emergency. Though his subsequent tests of this new concept proved only that his idea was a long way from complete, Reichert nonetheless  felt confident enough in his own abilities to personally test the parachute chute by jumping from the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower. In front of a crowd of curious onlookers, Franz Reichelt leapt to his death. Eyewitnesses report that, though he appeared calm and confident in the moments before jumping, his lifeless body's face was a mask of wide-eyed terror when he was carried off.

4. Henry Smolinski


Ever since the earliest humans watched birds soar through the skies above us, mankind has dreamt of flight. And ever since The Jetsons debuted in 1962, we've been pretty keen on cars that fly as well. So who can really blame inventor Henry Smolinski for his ill-concieved attempt at creating such a technological wonder? In 1971, Smolinski began development on the AVE Mizar, a flying car that he "invented" by taking the wings and engines off a Cessna Skymaster and welding them onto the top of a Ford Pinto. The idea was to make a modular plane attachment for a small car that could be quickly unbolted, leaving the car free to drive away unencumbered. However, apparently he didn't pay enough attention to making sure that the wings would actually stay on during flight, because he died in a fiery crash on September 11th, 1973 when the Mizar's right wing strut failed during a test flight. Smolinski never even got to see the Jetsons re-boot of the 1980's.

3. Thomas Andrews


Everyone knows the story of the Titanic--the gargantuan luxury ocean liner, declared "unsinkable" at the time of its construction, which claimed roughly fifteen hundred lives on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic ocean. Fewer people know of the heroic struggle of one of the ship's principal architects, Thomas Andrews. In 1907, Andrews began collaborating on plans for the behemoth superliner for the White Star Line. Tragically, several of Andrews' safety features were vetoed in the Titanic's final plan--including 46 lifeboats instead of only 20, a double hull to prevent puncturing, and a more extensive network of water-tight bulkheads to seal off lower compartments in the event that the ship began to take on water. Nonetheless he set out on the Titanic's maiden voyage in 1912 as a representative of the Harland and Wolff design firm, to spot any minor flaws in the ship's construction and to suggest subsequent improvements. When it became clear that the Titanic was going to sink in short order, Andrews informed Captain Smith of the direness of the situation, and began frantically assisting in the evacuation effort. By some accounts, he was even seen throwing deck chairs and other wooden objects over the side of the ship, hoping to provide extra floatation for those passengers who he knew all too well would not make it aboard a lifeboats. He then retired to the first class smoking room, where he calmly awaited his own fate aboard the doomed vessel.

2. Thomas Midgley, Jr.


The name of Thomas Midgely, Jr. is all too familiar to environmental scientists and climate change activists alike. Famous (or infamous) for his development of leaded gasoline and his synthesis of Freon, Midgley was yet another inventor to fall victim to one of his own creations. Oddly enough, however, it was arguably his most innocuous invention that eventually did him in. Lead and chloroflourocarbons (CFCs), two of the principal ingredients in his fuels, are known today to have serious health and environmental side effects, but Midgely himself avoided the worst of these afflictions (although he did take a long hiatus from work in order to recover from the early stages of lead poisoning). Instead, after developing Polio at the age of 51, a bedridden Midgely set his formidable brain to devising a complex system of ropes and pulleys that would allow others to help lift him out of bed. Four years later, he was found dead in his bed, strangled by these very same ropes. In what may be termed as a small act of mercy for a star-crossed inventor, Midgely did not live to see his legacy tarnished as evidence of the harmful nature of lead and Freon came to light.

1. Perillos


In the history of technology, few inventions are as chilling as the Brazen Bull: a hollow figure of a bull, sculpted of bronze, with a door in its side to accomodate a prisoner. Once the unfortunate victim was loaded into the Brazen Bull, a fire was lit underneath, roasting him to death. And, to carry the horror to its utmost peak, the head of the bull contained an elaborate system of tubes designed to transform the victims agonized screams into a melodic, animal-like bellowing. This sickening contraption was originally designed by Perillos of Athens for the tyrant Phalaris, who ruled over Acragas, Sicily from 570 to 554 B.C. It is said that Phalaris was so disgusted by Perillos' invention that, upon its presentation, Phalaris immediately had Perillos forced into his very own bull and a fire built underneath, making Perillos the first victim of his own monstrous creation. In a further strange twist, tradition holds that when Phalaris was overthrown by Telemachus in 554 B.C., he too was executed in his own Brazen Bull.

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Uploaded 02/19/2013
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