Horace Lawson Hunley

Ill-fated Inventors

Who knew inventing was such a dangerous occupation? We recall ten inventors whose big ideas led to their downfall.

  1. Otto Lilienthal (1848-96) was a German engineer who made aviation his life's work and became widely known as 'the glider king'. He designed, built and tested his own hang-gliders by launching himself from an artificial hill he had constructed near Berlin. Lilienthal completed over 2,000 successful flights but on 9 August 1896, the glider he was piloting suddenly lost lift and stalled, and he fell 50ft to the ground. He broke his spine and died the following day. Lilienthal's final words were reportedly 'Small sacrifices must be made!'
  2. Horace Lawson Hunley (1823-63) worked over the course of his life as a lawyer, merchant, legislator and latterly a marine engineer. It was his invention of the first combat submarine, converted from a steam boiler and propelled to its maximum speed of 4 knots by a hand-driven screw, that brought an untimely end to his life. The CSS Hunley was 3ft 10in wide, lit by candles and had no oxygen supply except that which was already inside. It sank twice during trials; the second time leaving Hunley and all seven crew members to suffocate. It was subsequently recovered and, on 17 February 1864, became the first submarine to successfully sink an enemy warship, the USS Housatonic, off Charlestown, South Carolina. Tragically, the CSS Hunley disappeared without trace and its fate was unknown until 1995, when the wreck was discovered four miles off Sullivan's Island, South Carolina.
  3. Valerian Abakovsky (1895-1921) Abakovsky, a chauffeur for Russian state security agency Cheka, harboured a passion for speed and is known for his Aerowagon invention. The experimental high-speed railcar was fitted with an aeroplane engine and propeller traction, and was intended to carry Soviet officials between cities. In 1921, a group led by Russian revolutionary Fyodor Sergeyev conducted a successful test journey from Tula to Moscow on board the Aerowagon. However, upon its return journey, the Aerowagon derailed and killed everyone on board, including Abakovsky, who was just 25 years old.
  4. Max Valier (1895-1930) Born in 1895 in the south western reaches of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Valier's dedication to realising rocket-powered travel is attributed to his love of Hermann Oberth's book 'Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen' ('By Rocket Into Interplanetary Space'). He established a programme with four stages of development: static engine experiments, ground-based rocket-powered vehicles, rocket-assisted aircraft and finally, a fully rocket-propelled spacecraft. After successfully completing stages one and two of his plan (a notable success came in 1929 when one of his rocket-powered sleds achieved a speed of 250mph), Valier began experimenting with liquid-fuelled rockets. On 17 May 1930, he was killed instantly when one of his test engines exploded on the test bench at his lab in Berlin.
  5. Marie Curie (1867-1934) was the first woman to win a Nobel prize, the only woman to win two Nobel prizes and the only person to win prizes in multiple sciences. Curie is famous for her pioneering research in the field of radioactivity. The Polish-born physicist-chemist discovered countless elements including radium and polonium, as well as the theory of radioactivity and the isolation of radioactive isotopes. Unaware of the dangers of exposure to radioactivity, Curie kept radioactive isotopes in her lab coat pocket and desk drawer, commenting on the pretty blue-green light they emitted. Curie died from leukaemia in 1934, aged 67, contracted as a result of her exposure to radiation. Her daughter Irene went on to win a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in conjunction with her husband in 1935 after discovering artificial radioactivity.
  6. William Bullock (1813-67) was a talented inventor, mechanic and newspaper editor who patented a number of inventions, including a grain drill for which he was awarded a prize from the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia. His most successful creation, the web rotary printing press, revolutionised the printing industry. However, while installing a new machine at the Philadelphia Public Ledger, Bullock's foot became caught in a pulley and was crushed. Bullock died shortly after, during an operation to amputate the gangrenous foot.
  7. Henry Smolinski (d.1973) was a project engineer for US Moon programme contractor North American Rockwell and a serial inventor. Convinced that flying cars were the future of transport, Smolinski formed the company 'Advanced Vehicle Engineers' and set about building the 'Mizar' – a vehicle that could both drive and fly. He modified a Ford Pinto with the airframe and engine of a Cessna Skymaster, making the flight elements of the vehicle detachable via six high-strength, quick-connect pins so that the vehicle could be used as a roadworthy car within three minutes. During a test flight with pilot Hal Blake on 11 September 1973, the car and wings separated leaving the two men 'flying' in a standard Ford Pinto. Both men were killed in the resulting crash.
  8. Thomas Midgely, Jr. (1889-1944) was an American chemist and has famously been referred to as the one human responsible for more deaths than any other in history due to his inventions of leaded petrol and CFCs. At the time of his death he had over 100 patents registered in his name. Suffering from Polio and lead poisoning, Midgely was left wheelchair-bound and developed a complex pulley system to help others lift him from bed. It was this invention that killed him after he became entangled in the ropes, strangling him to death.
  9. Henry Winstanley (1644-1703) was an engraver by trade who developed a reputation for gadgeteering. He made a large sum of money running a theatre in Piccadilly and bought five ships with the profits. After losing two of them to the treacherous Eddystone Reef, 14 miles off the coast of Cornwall, Winstanley began construction on the world's first offshore lighthouse on Eddystone Rock in 1696. During construction, Winstanley was kidnapped by the French and subsequently released at the direct order of King Louis XIV, who declared 'I am at war with England, not with humanity'. When the lighthouse was completed two years later, Winstanley and his crew were trapped in the lighthouse for five weeks due to storms and eventually ran out of candles to light it with. The lighthouse was a great success, however, and for five years no ship was wrecked on Eddystone Reef. In 1703, despite warnings of a storm, Winstanley headed out to his lighthouse to oversee essential repair work. The subsequent 'Great Storm of 1703' claimed Winstanley and his lighthouse; both were lost to the sea forever.
  10. Franz Reichelt (1879-1912), Austrian tailor of speciality garments, jumped to his death from the first storey of the Eiffel Tower while testing his emergency parachute/overcoat invention. After successful testing of the hybrid garment from his fifth floor flat, Reichelt gained permission from the authorities to use a dummy to test the invention from the Eiffel Tower's 189ft first floor. A large crowd, including cinematographers, as YouTube now attests, gathered to watch the test flight but witnessed more than anticipated when Reichelt, determined to prove his doubters wrong, decided to test the invention himself and died on impact when the coatchute failed to deploy.

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