6 Inventors Killed by Their Own Inventions

Franz Reichelt is now remembered as the "flying tailor."
Franz Reichelt is now remembered as the "flying tailor."
Wikimedia Commons//Public Domain

Not all inventions lead to glory. Some fail, while others tragically end in death. Here are six inventors who were killed by the very contraptions they created.

1. Franz Reichelt

On February 4, 1912, Austrian-born French tailor Franz Reichelt climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower in a wingsuit of his own design. The tailor had told French authorities he planned to test the suit using dummies, but upon his arrival at the tower, he announced that he would make the jump himself. His friends tried to dissuade him, citing wind speed and other factors—including previously unsuccessful attempts with dummies—but Reichelt was not moved. He would not use a safety rope or any other precautions. “I want to try the experiment myself and without trickery, as I intend to prove the worth of my invention,” he told journalists.

Newspapers described the suit as “only a little more voluminous than ordinary clothing” that, when extended, resembled "a sort of cloak fitted with a vast hood of silk." To release the parachute, which had a surface area of 320 square feet and a height of 16 feet, Reichelt merely had to extend his arms out so his body was in a cross position.

By 8:22 a.m., Reichelt was at the top of the Eiffel Tower. He adjusted the suit, and, facing the Seine, tested the wind direction by tossing a scrap of paper off the edge. Then, he placed one foot on the guardrail, and—observed by 30 journalists, two cinematographers (one up top, and one of the ground), and crowds gathered below—jumped (You can watch his fall here, but take note: it may be unsettling for some people.)

The parachute folded around Reichelt almost immediately; he plummeted for a few seconds before hitting the ground 187 feet below, leaving a crater 5.9 inches deep. His injuries were gruesome—in its April 1912 issue, Popular Mechanics reported that "his body was a shapeless mass when the police picked it up"—and the tailor was dead by the time onlookers reached him. An autopsy later determined he died of a heart attack during his fall.

2. Thomas Midgley, Jr.

Some of Thomas Midgley Jr.'s inventions wound up causing quite a bit of harm.Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Midgley, Jr., an American engineer and chemist, developed additives for gasoline as well as CFCs, and was awarded over 100 patents in his lifetime. When he contracted polio at age 51, he applied that inventor’s spirit to his impairment, creating a system of strings and pulleys that would make it easier for others to lift him out of bed. In 1944, when he was 55, Midgley became entangled in the ropes and was strangled by them.

3. Henry Smolinski

Engineer Henry Smolinski wanted to create a commercially viable flying car, so he quit his job at Northrop and started Advanced Vehicle Engineers. In 1973, the company built two prototype vehicles, called AVE Mizars, by fusing the rear end of a Cessna Skymaster airplane—which could be attached and detached from the car—with a Ford Pinto. The chimera vehicles were due to go into production in 1974, but on September 11, 1973, Smolinski and his friend and business partner Harold Blake were killed when the wing strut detached from the vehicle during a test flight. Bad welds were responsible for the crash.

4. Karel Soucek

The site of Karel Soucek's tragic demise.Bukowsky18, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 1984, Czechoslovakian-born stuntman Karel Soucek went over Niagara Falls in a custom-built, shock-absorbent barrel that was 9 feet long and 5 feet in diameter. He emerged, alive but bleeding, at the bottom, and decided to build a museum dedicated to his stunting equipment in Niagara Falls, Ontario. To finance the project, he convinced a company to sponsor another crazy stunt: Dropping the barrel, with Soucek inside, 180 feet from the top of the Houston Astrodome into a tank of water as part of a Thrill Show and Destruction Derby to be held on January 20, 1985.

Even daredevil Evel Knievel tried to talk Soucek out of the stunt, calling it “the most dangerous I’ve ever seen,” but the stuntman proceeded anyway. When the barrel was released, it began to spin dangerously, hitting the rim of the water tank instead of landing in the center. The 37-year-old’s chest and abdomen were crushed and his skull was fractured; he died at a hospital while the show was still going on.

5. William Nelson

On October 3, 1903, 24-year-old General Electric employee William Nelson took the new motorized bicycle he had invented out for a test spin. He fell off the bike on a hill and died instantly. According to the New York Times, “Nelson was regarded as an inventor of much promise.”

6. Valerian Ivanovich Abakovsky

Valerian Abakovsky was just 25 when he invented the Aerowagon, a high-speed railcar equipped with an aircraft engine and propeller traction, which was designed to take Soviet officials to and from Moscow. On July 24, 1921, a group of Communists—including Abakovsky, revolutionary Fyodor Sergeyev, and four others—took the Aerocar out for a test run. The vehicle successfully made the trip from Moscow to Tula, but on the way back, it derailed at high speed, killing six of the 22 people on board.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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Why Does the Supreme Court Have Nine Justices?

Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States // Public Domain

Some facets of the U.S. government—like presidential terms and post offices—were written into the original Constitution after (often lengthy) deliberations by the Founding Fathers. The number of Supreme Court justices was not one of those things.

The document did establish a Supreme Court, and it stated that the president should appoint its judges; it also mentioned that a “Chief Justice shall preside” if the president gets impeached. Since it was left up to Congress to work out the rest of the details, they passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which outlined an entire court system and declared that the Supreme Court should comprise one chief justice and five associate justices. As History.com explains, they landed on six because the justices would have to preside over federal circuit courts, one of which was located in each state. Traveling wasn’t quick or easy in the horse-and-carriage days, so Congress wanted to minimize each justice’s jurisdiction. They split the courts into three regions, and assigned two justices to each region.

According to Maeva Marcus, director of the Institute for Constitutional History at George Washington University Law School, the even number of justices was a non-issue. “They never even thought about it, because all the judges were Federalists and they didn’t foresee great disagreement,” she told History.com. “Plus, you didn’t always have all six justices appearing at the Supreme Court for health and travel reasons.”

Over the next 80 years, the number of Supreme Court justices would fluctuate for two reasons: the addition of federal circuit courts, and presidents’ partisan motives. John Adams and his Federalist Congress reduced the number to five with the Judiciary Act of 1801, which they hoped would prevent Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson from getting to fill a seat after he took office that year. By the following year, Jefferson’s Congress had passed another judicial act that returned the number of justices to six, and they upped it to seven after forming another circuit court in 1807.

The nation grew significantly during the early 19th century, and Congress finally added two new circuit courts—and with them, two new Supreme Court seats—during Andrew Jackson’s presidential tenure in 1837. Republican Abraham Lincoln then briefly increased the number of justices to 10 in order to add another abolitionist vote, but Congress shrunk it to seven in 1866 to keep Andrew Johnson from filling seats with Democrats. As soon as Republican Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Johnson, Congress set the number back to nine, where it’s remained ever since.

Sketched portraits of the U.S. Supreme Court justices through 1897.Popular and Applied Graphic Art Print Filing Series, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1911, Congress did away with circuit courts altogether, so the number of Supreme Court justices stopped being contingent upon their expansion (though each justice does still oversee a region to help with occasional tasks). As for presidents shifting the number to serve their own goals, it’s now looked down upon as “packing the court.” When Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to increase it to 15 in the 1930s to push his New Deal through the Supreme Court, the Senate opposed the bill by a whopping 70 to 20 votes.

In short, the depth of the Supreme Court’s bench changed a lot in America’s early years not only because the country was expanding, but also because the federal government was still testing out its system of checks and balances. And though presidents do still appoint justices based on their own political party, we’ve gotten used to the idea that the Supreme Court is, at least ideologically, supposed to be unbiased. If Congress and the president kept up the habit of adding and subtracting justices at will, it would tarnish this ideal.

“If Congress increases the size of the Supreme Court for transparently partisan political reasons, it would cement the idea the justices are little more than politicians in robes, and that the court is little more than an additional—and very powerful—arm through which partisan political power can be exercised,” Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, wrote for NBC News. “Indeed, that Congress has not revisited the size of the court in 150 years is a powerful testament to just how ingrained the norm of nine has become—and how concerned different political constituencies have been at different times about preserving the court’s power.”

[h/t History.com]