13 Inventors Killed By Their Own Inventions
From the inventor who disappeared along with the lighthouse he designed to the daredevil whose contraptions vaulted him to fame and then cut his life short, these are the sad but fascinating stories of inventors killed by their own inventions, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.
1. Henry Winstanley
Henry Winstanley was an inventor and engineer in 17th-century England who built a museum of mechanical wonders and operated a “water theater” containing fireworks, amongst other features. With the money he made from these attractions, Winstanley bought five ships, two of which were promptly wrecked on the Eddystone rocks near Plymouth, England.
Rather than wait for the government to do something about this threat to shipping, in 1696 Winstanley designed a massive lighthouse to mark the dangerous rocks, and received approval for his design. Over the next few years, he built the granite and wood structure, anchored by iron stanchions to a bare rock several miles off the coast. It ultimately stood 115 feet tall from base to weathervane, with 60 candles burning in the glass lantern room to guide nearby ships.
All went well until the night of November 26, 1703. A days-long storm, one of the biggest in British history, was pummeling the English Channel coast. Gale-force winds and waves carried away Winstanley’s lighthouse with Winstanley in it—and neither was ever seen again.
2. Thomas Midgley, Jr.
Some of Thomas Midgley, Jr.’s discoveries found widespread use in the 20th century. The American chemist figured out the compound tetraethyl lead could be added to gasoline to prevent engine knocking in automobiles, and determined that a certain chlorofluorocarbon made an excellent refrigerant. Though both of these applications ended up having a terrible effect on the environment, he received numerous medals for his innovative work as a chemical company executive and researcher.
But it wasn’t lead poisoning from his gasoline experiments that killed him. At age 51, Midgley contracted polio and lost the use of his legs. He invented a pulley system over his bed so he could lift himself into a sitting position. Sadly, on November 2, 1944, Midgley got caught up in the system’s ropes and was strangled to death.
3. Karel Soucek
Karel Soucek, a Czech-Canadian daredevil, shot to fame in 1984 when he became the first stuntman in 23 years to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The key was his custom-designed, plastic and metal cylinder, which he counterweighted at one end so it would remain upright as he plunged over the falls. After Soucek climbed into the barrel and his assistants pushed him into the water, he sped downstream at 75 miles an hour. Just 3.2 seconds later, he was at the bottom of the falls, bruised but triumphant.
But things went horribly awry a few months later when, in a new barrel of his own design, he arranged to be dropped from the roof of the Houston Astrodome into a vat of water. As Soucek was released from the ceiling, the barrel began to spin off kilter and dropped 180 feet, landing away from the target. Soucek later died at the hospital.
4. Harry Smolinski
Harry Smolinski also tried to invent a vehicle of sorts. The aeronautical engineer had a successful career designing jet aircraft and rockets, and in the early 1970s, he became obsessed with building a flying car. But instead of creating the whole thing from scratch, Smolinski wanted to design lightweight wings and a tail that could be bolted on to customers’ existing cars for flight, and then removed for regular driving. His prototype was constructed out of a Cessna twin-engine plane and a Ford Pinto. The team acknowledged that there were problems with the idea, but proclaimed “we feel we have the answers.”
Smolinski and a co-pilot took his Ford-Cessna combo out for a spin from California’s Ventura County Airport on September 11, 1973. Moments after takeoff, the airport manager saw a column of black smoke rising from the site of a crash. Bad welding and some loose parts were blamed for the fatal accident.
5. William Nelson
A lot of inventors have tried to make bicycles, cars, or trains faster, with disastrous results. Not much is known about William Nelson, who in 1903 was a 24-year-old employee at General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He worked on inventing a motorized bicycle, and took it for a test run on a hill opposite his father-in-law’s house in the village of Mapletown. He fell off the machine and was killed instantly. The New York Times noted, “Nelson was regarded as an inventor of much promise.”
6. Valerian Ivanovich Abakovsky
A Latvia-born Soviet chauffeur named Valerian Ivanovich Abakovsky attempted to create a high-speed railcar so the Soviet officials he worked for could travel around the vast country faster. At the time, the Soviet Union was encouraging engineers to experiment with putting aircraft propellers on trains to speed up land travel. The 25-year-old inventor designed a streamlined, oval-shaped car fitted with an aircraft engine and a propeller on the back to increase thrust. He dubbed it the Aerowagon. It could reach a speed of 87 miles per hour.
On July 24, 1921, Abakovsky and around two dozen passengers boarded the Aerowagon and traveled safely from Moscow to a city about 120 miles away. On the trip back, however, the car jumped the track going 70 miles an hour, killing the inventor and five European diplomats on board. All were buried in a place of honor in the Soviet Union—within the Kremlin itself.
7. Max Valier
Max Valier went a step further. In the 1920s, the Austrian aviator became entranced with the possibilities of space flight and developed a four-part plan for achieving rocket-powered space travel: the first stage was engine tests, the second was building ground-based rocket-powered vehicles, the third was developing rocket-powered aircraft, and the fourth step was turning the aircraft into a spacecraft. Unfortunately, Valier never got past step three.
In 1928, having settled on an engine design, Valier and two colleagues built a rocket car powered by solid propellant rockets. It reached a speed of 145 miles an hour in test drives. But to go faster and eventually lift off the ground, Valier experimented with liquid fuels in his aircraft prototypes. On May 17, 1930, one of them exploded, making Valier the first casualty of the proto-space age.
8. Francis Edgar Stanley
When Francis Edgar Stanley was trying to make his own speedy vehicle, he turned to steam power. With his twin brother Freelan, he began developing a steam-powered car in 1897. By 1899, after establishing the Stanley Motor Carriage Company, the brothers had sold more than 200 “Stanley Steamers,” making them the most successful automakers in the U.S. Fueled by water vapor, the open-topped cars were faster than other early vehicles: One set a speed record for a steam-powered car of nearly 128 miles per hour.
The New York Herald noted, “Mr. Stanley and his brother always drove cars which embodied the latest handiwork of their plant.” But that handiwork turned lethal on July 31, 1918, when Francis Stanley’s personal Steamer overturned on Massachusetts’s Newburyport Turnpike, killing its maker.
9. Horace Lawson Hunley
It’s not just land-based vehicles that can be deadly. During the Civil War, the Union navy blockaded southern ports, and the Confederate government offered a $50,000 bounty to anyone who could sink one of the Union ships. A Confederate engineer named Horace Lawson Hunley accepted the challenge. In Mobile, Alabama, Hunley worked on two early submarines that failed, but his third attempt, the H.L. Hunley, proved its worth by sinking an old vessel in a demonstration. In a later test, however, five men died when the sub filled with water and sank.
Hunley was not deterred. After bringing the sub to Charleston, South Carolina, he mustered a new crew and continued the trials. During a standard exercise on October 15, 1863, the Hunley went down with all hands—and this time, its namesake was aboard. But that wasn’t the end of the sub’s story. Soon after, the submarine was raised from the harbor and brought into operation in the Confederate fleet. The Hunley did actually become the first submarine to sink a Union warship, but in doing so, it sank once more, and again the whole crew died.
10. Thomas Andrews
If Hunley’s sub sounds cursed, it can’t compare to the mythology of our next invention. Thomas Andrews was the managing director at Belfast’s Harland & Wolff shipyard and one of the naval architects of its most luxurious creation, the RMS Titanic.
Andrews went on the maiden voyage of the ship to supervise its performance at sea. The first three days of the voyage were uneventful, but after the ship hit an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, Andrews is said to have observed the damage with Captain Edward Smith and determined that the vessel had two hours left, at most.
Of course, verifying that account is basically impossible, given the ultimate fate of the two men, but the mythic overtones of the story have proven tempting to generations of storytellers. Fact very well may have blended with fiction over the years, but some details of the tragedy are undeniable. Andrews supposedly searched staterooms to urge skeptical passengers into lifeboats, knowing full well that there were too few seats for all of them. In the end, he went down with the Titanic, and his body was never recovered.
11. Jean François Pilâtre de Rozier
Jean François Pilâtre de Rozier, a French chemist, made the first human-powered, untethered balloon flight in 1783. Designed by the famed Montgolfier brothers, the balloon was fueled by a fire that heated the air inside the balloon, forcing it aloft.
The downside to the Montgolfiers’ design was the large amount of combustible fuel, such as hay, that had to be taken aboard. But hay wouldn’t provide enough power to achieve Rozier’s next goal of flying across the English Channel. He built upon the hot-air design and added a second balloon filled with hydrogen, a gas that’s lighter than air. Rozier believed the extra buoyancy could take him across the Channel.
Despite his background in chemistry, Rozier apparently forgot that hydrogen is also extremely flammable. As he soared across the French countryside on June 15, 1785, something went terribly wrong. The hydrogen balloon caught fire in mid-air and plummeted to the ground, making Rozier and his traveling companion the world’s first fatalities in a flight accident.
12. Otto Lilienthal
Otto Lilienthal was a 19th-century aviation pioneer who was inspired to study wing aerodynamics after observing birds’ movement. He invented a number of gliders and flying machines at his workshop near Berlin. One of them, dubbed the “normal glider,” had a 23-foot wingspan; the person operating the glider held on to supports underneath in a sitting position. To publicize his inventions, Lilienthal commissioned photographs showing the gliders in action. But the photos hid one problem: The normal glider was hard to steer.
During a test flight on August 9, 1896, Lilienthal’s glider suddenly stalled and pitched head-first toward the ground. Lilienthal was unable to regain control, and he crash-landed from a height of about 50 feet, breaking his neck. He died the next day, though his research into the mechanics of flight went on to influence the Wright brothers.
13. William Bullock
William Bullock made some key technological advances to the printing press. As a newspaper editor in the mid-19th century, Bullock sought to cut down on the labor required to print the news. He developed a rotary press that could be continually fed with paper, eliminating the need for constant manual feeding and increasing output to around 11,000 sheets per hour.
As with many new inventions, though, Bullock’s press could be wonky. On April 2, 1867, he was making adjustments with his foot to a press being installed at another newspaper’s offices. His leg became tangled in a moving belt and was crushed. A few days later, he developed gangrene and underwent amputation of his leg. Things got worse from there: He died from surgical complications.