Unlucky woman spills coffee on blouse

The eccentric engineer: near misses, heroic failures and plain rotten luck

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This New Year edition pays tribute to the heroic, but unluckiest engineers of all time.

History is written by the victors, or at least it’s written about the victors, and this column is as guilty of that as any other. Yet in focusing on the glory, I wonder if I fail to give a genuine picture of engineering and invention. The Brunels, Teslas and Leonardos of this world were undoubtedly brilliant and tenacious, but they were lucky. There have been other engineers who have worked just as hard, perhaps with just as much vision, but perhaps the dice simply never landed well for them. This month’s column is a tribute to them and particularly the unluckiest engineers of all.

The flyers come high on this list. To build a flying machine and then attempt to fly in it yourself requires enormous faith. Eilmer of Malmesbury was a 12th-century monk, so he had faith, but also had some engineering skill. He fixed wings to his arms and feet, and jumped from the tower of Malmesbury Abbey. Reports say he “flew” over a furlong, although much of that flight was in a downwards direction. He was lucky in only breaking his legs and he survived into old age.

Ismail ibn Hammad al-Jawhari was less fortunate. At about the same date, he jumped from the roof of a mosque in Nushapur, held aloft with only wooden wings. He died in the fall. Franz Reichelt, the Austrian ‘flying tailor’, wanted to make flying safer when he invented the wearable parachute in 1910. In 1912 he told the French authorities he intended to test his invention with a dummy from the Eiffel Tower, but at the last minute announced he would test it himself. Despite numerous attempts to stop him, he plummeted to his death.

Other forms of transport have proved equally fatal. Sylvester Roper had a serious reputation as an engine inventor, but came to grief on a Columbia bicycle he had fitted with one of his own steam engines for a speed trial. He was found to have died from a heart attack, although no one is sure if this led to his crash, or the alarming speed of his steam bike caused the heart attack.

Ships have also done their best to devour their inventors. In 1843, Horace Lawson Hunley drowned on his great invention, the combat submarine. In an ironic twist of fate, the naval architect in charge of the plans for Titanic, Thomas Andrews Jr, also happened to be on board for her first fatal voyage and didn’t live to tell the tale. Even when not afloat, the sea can remind inventors that it’s not to be messed with. Henry Winstanley, builder of the first Eddystone Lighthouse, was inside his magnificent invention when the Great Storm of 1703 struck. Neither he, nor the five men with him, were ever seen again. Nor was the lighthouse.

Of course, many have died quite heroically for their work. Marie Curie, double Nobel prize winner, died of aplastic anaemia brought on by radioactive materials she studied, as did Sabin Arnold von Sochocky, the inventor of radioactive paint.

Others, we might feel, succumbed to a universe intent on getting even with them. Soviet scientist Andrei Zheleznyakov was developing the nerve agent Novichok 5 when a malfunction in his suit exposed him to the chemical. Unhappily for him, the agent worked perfectly.

However, while most of these unfortunate ends might in some way be predictable outcomes of trying to go further, faster and higher, not all inventions have done this for their inventors in such obvious ways.

Thomas Midgley Jr is remembered, and sometimes reviled, today for his invention of two of the most damaging chemicals of the 20th century, tetraethyl lead and chlorofluoro­carbons. Yet neither of these killed him. Having contracted polio in his early 50s, the ever resourceful Midgley invented a mechanical device to help him get out of bed unaided. Becoming entangled in the ropes and pulleys one morning, he was strangled to death.

Still more surprising was the death of William Bullock, inventor of the revolutionary but generally rather innocuous web rotary printing press. An improved version of Richard Hoe’s rotary press, Bullock’s machine allowed huge rolls of paper to be fed into the machine, rather than cut sheets, and printed on both sides as well as then folding and cutting the pages. This marked the beginning of mass publishing, but also the end of Bullock.

While installing a press he attempted to kick a drive belt into position on a pulley and got his leg caught in the machine. The leg injury went gangrenous and he died during an amputation attempt, thus giving the lie to the phrase: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

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