When people hear about inventors who lost their lives because of their own inventions, certain well-known cases come to mind: Madame Curie, who died of radiation-induced anemia; Franz Reichelt, who jumped to his death from the Eiffel Tower wearing his own parachute; Horace Lawson Hunley, who drowned in the submarine he designed and built himself; and Otto Lilienthal, who broke his neck when the glider he designed stalled and crashed. This list, however, describes the tragic irony of ten lesser-known, but equally important, inventors who lost their lives while using their own inventions.
10. Alexander Bogdanov
Alexander Bogdanov is one of those heroes and forgotten pioneers who don’t get the credit they deserve for their contributions to humanity. He was a man who loved action, experimentation, and stretching his own limits. He was a polymath, a philosopher, a physician, and one of the founders of Bolshevism. Bogdanov was one of the earliest pioneers to envision blood transfusions not only as replacement therapy, but also as a body stimulant. In 1926 he set out to demonstrate its mechanisms scientifically by establishing an institute of blood transfusion. But his obsession with the transfusion of blood eventually overstepped the limits of science and Alexander came to believe – as have many before and after him – that he could achieve longevity and eternal youth through blood transfusions. Ironically, he died pursuing his experiments and obsessions when he transfused himself with blood from a student with malaria and tuberculosis, probably because of a blood group incompatibility. In any case, despite his sudden and unexpected death, his legacy inspired his successors to trudge on, and put Russia in the frontline of the development of centralized national blood transfusion services.
9. Perillos of Athens
Out of all inventors killed off by their inventions, it’s likely that Perillos of Athens is the one who deserved his fate the most. Perillos was a craftsman, a coppersmith, and probably deranged. He created the “Bronze Taurus” AKA the “Bull of Sicily,” a machine for executing criminals in a horrible way. This device was essentially a hollow metal bull in which convicts were enclosed and baked to death. His evil mind even provided a special “tunnel” ending in the nose of the bull to allow the audience to hear the agonized cries of the tortured convicts, distorted to sound like the bellow of a bull. According to some versions of this ancient story, Perillos, proud of his satanic invention, went to Sicily to sell it to the local tyrant Phalaris. After Perillos showed Phalaris his creation, the even more evil tyrant had the inventor climb inside the bull and test out the acoustics. A fire was lit underneath, and Perillos was roasted to death in his own diabolic invention.
8. Mitrofan Nedelin – and 150 Other People
The “Nedelin Catastrophe” is without doubt the biggest disaster on this list. Besides the catastrophic death toll, it was a terrible loss to the Soviet government on many different levels. The accident occurred at the Baikonur Cosmodrome test range, during the development of the Soviet ICBM R-16. In October of 1960, the jet fuel of the prototype missile exploded in a huge fireball. Every high-tech machine surrounding the launch pad was destroyed, and the explosion killed some of the USSR’s best engineers. More than 150 people lost their lives in this horrific disaster, including the head of the missile development program, the decorated veteran Air Marshall Mitrofan Nedelin, who had contributed the most to the development of the R-16. The Soviets denied the specifics of this disaster until 1989, when they finally admitted the truth.
7. Fred Duesenberg
If Fred Duesenberg had been a poet or a rock star, he would have been considered a cursed one like Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix. Fred was a talented automobile designer, a pioneer years ahead of his time. He was also a little too obsessed with speedy sports cars. When he was a child, his family brought him from Germany to the US, where he showed a profound interest in the world of speed and wheels. By the time he was fifteen, he was already designing racing bicycles. Fred went on to have an illustrious career as an engineer, producing some of the most powerful vehicles of his era. In 1921, his racing car The Duesenberg became the first American car to win the Grand Prix at Le Mans. Despite all his revolutionary innovations and successes in the engineering and automotive world, Fred never did manage to make much money. But what’s even more ironic is that Fred died because of his own invention. In 1932, he was test-driving his latest Duesenberg at high speeds when it overturned. As he was recuperating from his injuries, he contracted pneumonia and died. His tragic death didn’t kill the brand however, as Duesenbergs remain to this day among the most expensive and significant collector cars in the world.
6. Valerian Abakovsky
At the young age of 25, Soviet engineering genius Valerian Abakovsky invented the Aerowagon, a cross between a car and a train, powered by an airplane engine. It was designed to run on rails, reaching extremely high speeds. The goal was to close the distance between the far-flung cities of Russia, and it was rightly considered a technological miracle for its time. On July 24, 1921, Abakovsky and fellow Soviet communist Fyodor Sergeyev (who had participated in the October Revolution) were among the passengers testing the vehicle. The Aerowagon successfully arrived in the city of Tula after departing from Moscow but, on the return journey to the Russian capital, it derailed. Abakovsky and five of the 21 Soviet officials on board met horrible deaths, and one of the most ambitious inventions of its time ended in a miserable failure.
5. John Godfrey Parry-Thomas
John Godfrey Parry-Thomas is a legend and an immortal in the world of fast cars and racing. A true lover of speed, the Welsh engineer and driver set multiple land speed records during his adventurous lifetime, including the world record set by his speed car he called Babs. Babs, also known as Chitty Bang Bang 4, reached speeds that were mythical at the time – as much as 274 km (170 mph) per hour. But in 1927, driving his own creation to regain the land speed record, one of the chains from the improvised car broke free and struck John in the head, killing him instantly.
4. Aurel Vlaicu
Aurel Vlaicu can be considered a modern Daedalus, not only because of his revolutionary innovations in the world of aerospace, but also because of his tragic death. Born in Romania in 1882, he became one of the most brilliant inventors and airplane constructors of the 20th century. After finishing his engineering studies at the Munchen University in Germany, he went to work at Opel, earning one award after another in pretty much every international competition of the time for his revolutionary constructions of airplanes. At the age of only 31, he had constructed the first all-metal airplane in history — the Vlaicu III, the third in a series of airplanes he named for himself. However, on September 13, 1913, while living his dream and testing his previous model — the Vlaicu II — over Dracula’s Carpathian Mountains, Vlaicu met his tragic death when he crashed and died, just like his personal icon and mythical hero Daedalus.
3. Michael Dacre
Michael Dacre wanted to give the world its first flying taxi. Michael was a British aviation pioneer, a decorated veteran of the British Air Forces, and managing director of the British-based Avcen Ltd. People who knew him described him as a man who never stopped working and dreaming, always revolving his plans around everyday people and how to improve their lives with his innovations. His biggest ambition was to construct multiple “flying taxis” to transport travelers between Heathrow Airport and central London in about four minutes, at a cost of about £50. Unfortunately, the passionate aviation pioneer didn’t manage to achieve his goal. In 2009, at the age of 53, he died in a spectacular crash on the very first test of the prototype of his flying taxi.
2. Max Valier
Max Valier was an Austrian inventor, physicist, and rocketry pioneer. He helped establish the “Spaceflight Society” that would later bring together some of the greatest minds from around the world working to make space flight a reality. But like many another great inventor, Max Valier experimented a little too much. While he was amazing the world again and again with his innovations in rocketry, he decided that he wanted to transfer the technology of rockets to motoring – but the car-rocket that he envisioned was never constructed. In May of 1930, following a couple of successful liquid-fuel tests, the alcohol-based fuel he was testing in his laboratory exploded, and Valier was killed.
1. Henry Smolinski
Henry Smolinski was a highly-trained veteran engineer who had worked for some of the biggest companies of aerospace, when he decided to quit his job and launch his own California-based company called “Advanced Vehicle Engineers,” specializing exclusively in bringing a flying car to the marketplace. His goal was to invent a flying car that was accessible and affordable to everyone – a dream of many ambitious engineers back in the ’70s. In 1973, the company finally built the AVE Mizar, the first flying car, which was made by fusing the rear end of a Cessna Skymaster jet with a Ford Pinto. But Henry’s invention killed him and his pilot in September of 1973, when the plane-car crashed in a fireball during a test flight. Shortly after the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board barred any further tests of similar projects, whose plans perhaps can be found to this day in the bottom drawers or dusty files of many an engineer.