5 Inventors Killed By Their Bizarre Inventions
Inventors often have accidents when testing their inventions. It comes with the territory. It’s near impossible to traverse new ground without hitting some bumps. Often inventions seem bizarre, all the way from concept to creation. Sometimes they show themselves as ingenious when put to use and sometimes their faults are catastrophically exposed. For these inventors, who bet against popular opinion, their inventions ended up the death of them.
#5. Thomas Midgley Jr. – Polio Mobility Device
Thomas Midgely Jr. trusted his life to many of his inventions. Along with the commercial development of one of the first CFCs (those chemicals that destroy the ozone layer), Midgely is remembered for introducing tetraethyllead, branded as Ethyl, as an additive for gasoline, which reduced engine noise. The branding intentionally omitted the ‘lead’ part of the chemical’s name, to spare customers any potential worry about lead poisoning.
Unfortunately, as people exposed to the product kept contracting lead poisoning, that worry began to organically manifest. Midgely himself contracted the illness and had to take a sabbatical in 1923 to allow his lungs to heal. A year later, anxieties reached breaking point as deaths within the production factory reached double digits, along with multiple reports of hallucinations and batshit freak outs. In October 1924, Midgely took part in a press conference in which he intended to show the audience that Ethyl was entirely safe. Midgely, who as mentioned but really can’t be overstated, had already suffered through one bout of lead poisoning, proceeded to deeply inhale a bottle of the product for sixty seconds. He then declared he could do so every day without any health complications.
Science doesn’t care how confidently you lie and so Midgely again was badly poisoned. External bodies got clued-up on the dangers at this point and Ethyl production was forbidden without express stated permission.
Miraculously, none of this directly killed Midgely. And indeed, his contraction of polio some twenty years later would not directly kill him either. Ever the innovator, and frustrated by his inability to move his body out of bed, Midgely developed a gadget consisting of pulleys and rope that would help haul himself up in the morning. Flaws became clear on the fatal occasion the device entangled Midgely and left him to frantically struggle against its grip on his neck.
#4. Alexander Bogdanov – Eternal Youth Blood Transfusion
Bogdanov co-founded the Bolshevik party with Vladimir Lenin. However, he was expelled from the group in 1909, following a hefty campaign of character assassination, eight years before the October Revolution. Bogdanov was somewhat of a Renaissance man though. Politics did not solely define him. He had works of science-fiction published and was a prominent physician, who by 1924 had become obsessively engaged with the pursuit of eternal youth through highly maverick methods.
Bogdanov believed that rejuvenation could occur through the use of blood transfusions and devoted much of his last four years to related experiments. After he had undergone eleven transfusions with no observed complications, he stated a belief that not only had his eyesight been improved, his balding had slowed.
Leonid Krasin, a friend still associated with the Bolsheviks, told his wife in a letter that the transfusions appeared to have reversed Bogdanov’s age by up to ten years. In fact, by 1925 Bogdanov was greatly respected within the field of haematology and blood transfusions, founding an institution which was the first of its kind, dedicated solely to such study. His reputation took a fatal blow after his twelfth transfusion, unwittingly injecting himself with the blood of a volunteer carrying both malaria and tuberculosis.
Bogdanov did not recover but the volunteer, who had received the physician’s blood, lived on.
In 2014, a set of scientific papers were published chronicling blood transfusion experiments using mice. The results showed that older mice had impressively benefitted both physically and mentally from transfusions of blood from younger mice. Although Bogdanov’s inventive work was bizarre, clearly he was on to something.
#3. Perillos of Athens – Brass Bull Torture Device
The story goes that some time between 570 and 554 BC, Perillos of Athens pitched to Phalaris, the ruler of Acragas (now Agrigento, in Sicily) a new structure to dispose of his enemies. His proposed idea was a bronze bull, big enough to house a person. Once inside, they would be sealed in and roasted alive.
Upon returning with a completed prototype, Perillos informed Phalaris that he’d incorporated a system of pipes that would convert victims’ pained screams into a sound reminiscent of a bull. Phalaris wanted to hear this and instructed Perillos to enter and demonstrate. At this point, Phalaris sealed the inventor in and a fire was started underneath.
It’s said that from the bull’s nostrils, smoke would emerge mixed with incense, animating it in an enraged fashion. At this point, the story splits one of two ways. One account says that they burnt Perillos to death in the bull, another states that they removed him, badly burnt but alive, and then promptly threw him to his death, from a hill.
The story, altogether, is an uncertain one. The torture device definitely existed, however its origins are still disputed.
#2. Henry Smolinski – Flying Car
You could say a plane is essentially just a flying car. What makes this invention unique is that it’s literally a Ford Pinto with the rear part (essentially wings and an engine) of an aircraft strapped to it.
The designer was Henry Smolinski and he called his invention the AVE Mizar. Promotional material proclaimed that the device could be, “converted from car to plane in minutes, with no special skills or tools.” The idea was to simply reverse the corresponding, completely roadworthy car into the airframe and an interlocking system would then do the bulk of the work for you. Only when all pieces are sturdily connected can the Mizar be operated.
Smolinski piloted what ended up being the last test run, with associate Harold Blake along for the ride. The Mizar malfunctioned and plummeted from the sky. The National Transportation Safety Board reported that along with the design being too heavy, bad welds had caused the crash – the right wing strut attachment having failed to properly fix into the Pinto.
If you’re thinking this sounds like something straight out of a Bond film, you’d be right. The Mizar was going to be used in The Man with the Golden Gun, but after the crash a model aeroplane substituted.
#1. Franz Reichelt – The Parachute Coat
Franz Reichelt has the distinct honour of being the only subject in this article to have had the build up to his death, the accident itself, and the aftermath all captured on tape. We see him proudly showing off a bulky hunchbacking coat at the base of the Eiffel Tower to intrigued journalists and confused bystanders. The Parisian morning is chilly enough that even terrible old timey cameras still pick up steamy breath.
Reichelt had tested the coat on a dummy. Hurling it from the fifth floor of his apartment building, it gracefully landed unscathed. From this moment on his belief in the idea seems incurable, ignoring a deluge of warnings from aeronautics experts.
He tested the design himself, unsuccessfully, from 8 metres high with a pile of straw to save him from injury. And in one of the first glimpses of how utterly demented this pursuit had made Reichelt, he would repeat the drop, this time without the straw, resulting in a broken leg.
Reichelt’s sliver of dummy-based glory cursed him with a perpetual hunger for more. In his mind, February 4th 1912 was the day he’d be immortalised. No test-runs. Excessive winds no reason to postpone. He had become instrinsically linked with the costume, unable to detach himself from it through any trial or tribulation, stating to journalists on-hand, “I want to try the experiment myself and without trickery, as I intend to prove the worth of my invention.”
As Pathé’s film footage cuts to moments before Reichelt’s plunge, we see the coat now resembling a half-made tent and the inventor precariously balancing one foot on a chair, placed on a table, and the other on the guardrail of the tower. Two colleagues are present, juggling fraternal encouragement and an instinctive urge to wrench the lunatic down. Reichelt fluidly leaves the frame.
The footage shifts to ground level as Reichelt’s body descends in free fall, now almost completely separated from his invention, thudding into dirt. His right side crushed and his spine and skull broken. His eyes were open, dilated – leaving a final message of panic and, most likely, regret.
Here’s the footage: