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Unlucky Inventors Killed by Their Own Creations

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Sometimes, being an inventor involves taking risks; some lose their money and some even lose their lives. Here we look at a selection of a few visionaries who became victims of their own genius.

Misadventures in Transportation

With the invention of engines, whether steam, internal combustion, electric, or rocket, legions of inventive people tinkered with contraptions aiming for greater speed.

Sylvester H. Roper of Boston, Massachusetts caught on to the possibility of harnessing steam to the bicycle. In 1867/68 he invented the world's first motorcycle. Charcoal provided the heat to turn water into steam (it is not recorded how many briquettes per mile the machine used).

Roper set aside developing his velocipede for several years to focus on his many other projects that included sewing machines, shotguns, and steam-powered carriages.

In 1894, Roper introduced a much-improved version steam-powered bicycle that had a top speed of 40 mph. He was demonstrating his motorcycle at a race track in June 1896 when he suffered a heart attack on the back straight and died. He was 73.

Francis Edgar Stanley and his brother Freelan Oscar were also involved in developing steam-powered vehicles. In 1906, their Stanley Steamer “Rocket” hit a top speed of 127 mph, a new record.

In 1918, Francis Stanley was driving his Steamer in Massachusetts when encountered a farm wagon blocking the road. He swerved to avoid the obstruction, hit a wood pile, and overturned. He died of his injuries on the way to hospital.

Austrian-born Max Valier was a man who devoted his life to rocket science. His ultimate goal was spaceflight but he intended to get there by first developing rocket-powered land vehicles. One of his cars reached 145 mph in 1928 and a sled hit 250 mph a year later.

In May 1930, he was experimenting with propellants in his Berlin laboratory when there was an explosion. He was buried in Munich.

Max Valier's Rocketry

Misadventures in Aeronautics

When humans severed the bond that kept us tethered to the ground many dreamers started wondering where flight would take us, and they weren't thinking of today's budget airlines.

In June 1783, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier demonstrated the first ascent of a hot-air balloon, an event that captured the imagination of scientist Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier.

The Montgolfier brothers had sent a duck, rooster, and sheep aloft, Pilâtre de Rozier thought it time for a human to take a risky flight. He did so in November 1783 and became the most famous person in Europe.

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Seeking even more fame, he crossed the English Channel by balloon from England to France in 1784. The following year he decided to make the 21-mile trip in the opposite direction. He had designed a craft with two balloons, one with a hot-air chamber and another filled with hydrogen above it.

No one knows what caused the hydrogen to ignite, but the whole contrivance crashed to the ground killing Pilâtre de Rozier and a passenger. The balloon had not even crossed the French coast.

The Montgolfier brothers demonstrate their balloon for the first time.

The Montgolfier brothers demonstrate their balloon for the first time.

Much earlier than Pilâtre de Rozier's fatal crash a Chinese man demonstrated a deadly misunderstanding of physics. In about 2000 BCE, Wan Hu dreamed of being the world's first astronaut.

The story leans more toward fable than fact, but we have Wan Hu sitting in a chair with 47 rockets (read fireworks) attached. A team of servants lit the fuses simultaneously and then, according to instructions, stood clear. There was a loud bang and, when the smoke cleared, there was no sign of Wan Hu or his chair. Perhaps, he completed his mission, perhaps not.

Henry Smolinski goes down in history as the man who made a passenger car fly—until it didn't. A well-trained aeronautical engineer, Smolinski joined with friend Hal Blake in 1971 to start a company to build flying cars. The two chopped down a Cessna Skymaster and attached it to a Ford Pinto, which became undercarriage, cockpit, and passenger compartment.

In September 1973, Smolinski and Blake took their creation out for a spin. Within two minutes it was a pile of flaming wreckage on the ground as it disintegrated shortly after take off. The occupants died instantly.

Misadventures in the Laboratory

Scientists are always involved in cutting-edge research that sometimes push the boundaries of safety.

Jesse Lazear was an American doctor studying diseases such as yellow fever and malaria. He correctly surmised that mosquitoes were the transmitting agents and he secretly infected himself via a yellow fever-carrying mosquito to study the effects.

However, the experiment proved fatal and he died in September 1900. A year later, nurse Clara Maass volunteered for the same experiment, which had the same tragic outcome.

Jesse Lazear and Clara Maass.

Jesse Lazear and Clara Maass.

Even non-scientists know that conducting experiments involving radioactive materials is inherently dangerous, although early pioneers were groping in the dark about such concerns.

Polish physicist Marie Curie did not seem to grasp the health implications of her breakthrough work in discovering polonium and radium in 1898—of course, in those days nobody did. She continued working with these radioactive materials and it's likely the long-term exposure caused the aplastic anemia that took her life in 1934 at the age of 66.

By the time Louis Slotin was working on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, the dangers of exposure to radiation were better understood.

In May 1946, he was demonstrating a nuclear fission experiment for colleagues. A screwdriver used to control the test slipped and Slotin was hit by a massive blast of gamma and neutron radiation. It took Slotin nine days to die from an agonizing collapse of all his organs.

Safety protocols are much more sophisticated today, but inventors and scientists still risk their lives to push the bounds of knowledge.

Bonus Factoids

  • American inventor Edwin H. Armstrong developed the technology for FM radio in 1933. Unfortunately, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) viewed FM as a threat to its AM network of stations and got into protracted legal battles with Armstrong. Financial difficulties and the endless litigation drove Armstrong to suicide in 1954.
  • We all know that Thomas Edison invented the moving picture camera. Well, we are all wrong. Frenchman Louis Le Prince made a camera that captured moving images in 1888, several years before Edison. Two years later, just before a public demonstration of his technology, Le Prince disappeared. No clue about what happened to him has ever emerged.
  • Dr. Jonas Salk developed the vaccine against polio and tested it on volunteers, including himself, his wife, and three children, before it went into general use in 1955. Salk did not patent the vaccine nor did he earn any money from it because he wanted it to be widely available to the world's population. It's estimated that by his generosity Dr. Salk forfeited $7 billion by giving his invention to humanity.

Sources

  • “Sylvester Roper's Steam Velocipedes.” Paul d'Orléans, thevintagent.com, October 16, 2017.
  • “Five Inventors Killed by Their Own Creations.” Allison Futterman, Discover, February 11, 2022.
  • “Max Valier.” New Mexico Museum of Space History, undated.
  • “Modern-Day Icarus: Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, Michael R. Lynn, ultimatehistoryproject.com, undated.
  • “Wan Hu. The Chinese Astronaut.” Louis de Gouyon Matignon, spacelegalissues.com, June 26, 2019.
  • “How the AVE Mizar Flying Car Proved Lethal.” Connor Doyle, hotcars.com, March 14, 2021.
  • “Marie Curie.” famousscientists.org, undated.
  • “Louis Slotin and 'The Invisible Killer.' ” Martin Zeilig, canadashistory.com, August 28, 2016.
  • “Scientists Who Were Killed by Their Own Research.” Daniel Leonard, grunge.com, December 18, 2020.
  • “Biography of Edwin Howard Armstrong, Inventor of FM Radio.” Mary Bellis, ThoughtCo, May 7, 2019.
  • “The Mystery of Louis Le Prince, the Father of Cinematography.” Kieron Casey, scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk, August 29, 2013.
  • “History of Salk.” Salk Institute, undated.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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