March 14, 2024 | Jamie Hayes

34 Inventors Whose Inventions Killed Them


Isn't It Ironic?

Inventors create the world of the future—but they don't always get to stick around to see it. These Dr. Frankensteins all created remarkable things, only for their inventions to turn on them. 

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Thomas Andrews

Naval architect Thomas Andrews, the managing director of Harland and Wolff shipbuilding company, designed the Titanic to be the safest and most advanced ship in history. 

Portrait of Thomas Andrews - 1911User:Gelosia, Wikimedia Commons

"She's Made Of Iron, Sir"

Andrews joined the maiden voyage of the Titanic to spot any potential improvements to his design, but after a few days he noted that she was "as nearly perfect as human brains can make her".

The Titanic struck an iceberg one day later, and Andrews went down with the ship.

RMS TitanicFrancis Godolphin Osbourne Stuart, Wikimedia Commons

Valerian Abakovsky

Valerian Abakovsky was a Soviet engineer who came up with an idea for a high-speed railcar over a century ago. By mounting an aircraft engine to a railcar, Abakovsky's "Aerowagon" could reach nearly 90 miles an hour.

Valerian Abakovsky - 1921Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

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Too Fast

The Aerowagon was envisioned as a way to transport Soviet officials across the country quickly, but it never came to be. During a 1921 test, it derailed while near top speed. Seven people lost their lives, Abakovsky included.

Image of aerovagon - 1921Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Bogdanov

Alexander Bogdanov was a Russian, and later Soviet, genius who was one of the architects of the Russian Revolution, as well as a philosopher, science fiction writer, and physician—with a particular interest in blood transfusions.

Belarussian writer Alexander A BogdanovUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

A Very Bad Idea

Bogdanov believed he had created a way to become younger by injecting himself with the blood of a man in his 20s. After his first tests, he remarked that he seemed 10 years younger at least. 

Then he injected himself with the blood of student with malaria and TB and died.

Portrait of Alexander Bogdanov - 1904Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

William Bullock

Though he didn't invent the rotary printing press, William Bullock's improvements to the design revolutionized the printing industry. 

While older versions still required a lot of laborious hand-feeding, Bullock's version could churn out 12,000 sheets an hour.

Portrait of Inventor William Bullock.Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Don't Stand Too Close

While doing maintenance on one of his machines, Bullock got his foot crushed in the mechanism. His maimed leg developed gangrene, and eventually needed to be amputated. He didn't survive the surgery.

Printing press—six cylinder design - 1864N. Orr, Wikimedia Commons

Robert Cocking

Robert Cocking wasn't a scientist. He was a watercolor painter, but that didn't stop him from performing his own amateur experiments—such as creating his own homemade parachute.

Image of Robert Cocking - between 1837 and 1840British Museum, Wikimedia Commons

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Should Have Double Checked

While designing his parachute, Cocking took his own weight into account—but forgot that the parachute itself added a lot of mass. 

The thing completely failed, and Cocking plummeted to his doom in front of a crowd of horrified onlookers.

The Royal Vauxhall Nassau Balloon - 1837British Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Cowper Phipps Coles

Captain Cowper Phipps Coles personally designed the HMS Captain to be one of the most formidable and advanced ships in the world, with iron armor, steam engines, and a fortified, rotating turret.

British Captain and Naval Architect Cowper Phipps Coles - 1870Illustrated London News, Wikimedia Commons

You Forgot One Thing...

The HMS Captain looked impressive—but it was unstable and handled terribly. Just five months after entering service, the Captain capsized in heavy seas, claiming 480 lives, Coles included.

Painting of the British warship HMS Captain, completed in April 1870William Frederick Mitchell, Wikimedia Commons

Marie Curie

The first-ever female Nobel Prize Winner, Marie Curie's pioneering research into radioactivity—a term she coined—changed the face of science forever. 

But because she was the one who invented it, she was also the one to discover its dangers.

Portrait of Marie Curie - circa 1920sHenri Manuel, Wikimedia Commons

Radiation Is No Joke

Marie Curie often carried test tubes of radioactive material in her pockets, and the radiation most likely caused irreparable damage to her bone marrow.

She succumbed to aplastic anaemia at age 66.

Pierre and Maria Skłodowska-Curie in the laboratory - 1904Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Michael Dacre

Michael Dacre invented the AVCEN Jetpod, a short takeoff and landing vehicle, to act as a flying taxi. In 2009, Dacre completed his prototype and took it for its first test flight.

After three failed takeoff attempts, Dacre managed to get airborne, climbing to 200m before losing control and crashing, costing him his life.

plane crash in the mountainsThe U.S. National Archives, Picryl

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John Day

John Day was an English carpenter who bet his friend that he could build a "diving chamber" (essentially one of the first submarines) and stay in it underwater for 12 hours. 

The first American submarine.Axel Bührmann, Flickr

In Too Deep

Unfortunately, Day's calculations for his "diving chamber" were completely wrong. He went under on June 22, 1774—and simply never came back up.

Underwater image of sea.Parée, Flickr

Fred Duesenberg

Engineer Fred Duesenberg revolutionized the automotive industry with inventions like the first eight-cylinder engine. He and his brother started the Duesenberg Motor Company.

Portrait of Fred Duesenberg - 1925Own archive, Wikimedia Commons

Lost Control

In 1932, while driving a prototype Duesenberg, Fred lost control on a slick highway. He was thrown from the car, but expected to make a full recovery. However, he developed pleural pneumonia and passed.

Fred Duesenberg's Mountain Car 1912clamshack, Flickr

Karl Flach

Inventor Karl Flach had to flee Germany after taking part in a failed revolution. He emigrated to Chile where, with the support of the Chilean government, he built Flach, the first Chilean submarine.

Portrait of Inventor Karl Flach - 1866www.bentos.cl/archivos/SubmarinoFlach1, Wikimedia Commons

The Abyss

Though Flach had performed multiple successful test dives, she made an unexpected dive on May 3, 1866, and never resurfaced. Flach, his teenage son, and nine other crew members perished.

Submarin Flach, image original - 1865Karl Flach, Wikimedia Commons

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Abu Nasr al-Jawhari

Abu Nasr al-Jawhari, from modern-day Kazakhstan, built a medieval flying device consisting of two wooden wings and a rope over 1,000 years ago. 

He personally tested his device by leaping from the roof of a Mosque. It did not work.

Human ornithopter - 1932Tom Wigley, Flickr

Mike Hughes

"Mad" Mike Hughes was an American flat-Earther and daredevil. In 2002, he set a Guinness World Record by jumping a stretch limo 103 feet.

Then he gained an interest in rockets.

Lincoln Town car Stretch Limo - 2014TAFI s.r.o., CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Rocketman

Hughes tested his first steam-powered rocket in 2014. After successfully piloting one of his rockets to nearly 2,000 feet, Hughes took another flight in 2020. 

Though the launch was successful, the parachute failed to open on descent, costing Hughes his life in the crash.

Man seating near rocket.Steve Jurvetson, Flickr

Julius H. Kroehl

Under the employment of the Pacific Pearl Company, Julius H. Kroehl designed and built the Sub Marine Explorer, the first submarine ever that could dive and surface on its own. 

Sub Marine Explorer, Title Sheet - 2010Croteau, Todd A., creator, Wikimedia Commons

Pearls For Swine

Kroehl personally piloted his craft on pearl fishing expeditions in Panama—then suddenly passed. 

Today it's believed that he succumbed to decompression sickness, something that Kroehl was too ahead of his time to know about.

Sub Marine Explorer Wreck - 2006James P. Delgado, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Horace Lawson Hunley

Working for the Confederates, Horace Lawson Hunley built the H. L. Hunley—and perished in it during a test dive. But it gets worse. Unwilling to let go of their investment, the Confederates salvaged the craft and sent it out on a mission.

The Hunley successfully sunk the USS Housatonic—but once again, she sunk, costing the entire crew their lives.

Horace Lawson Hunley, Confederate marine engineer. - 1860Alabama Department of Archives and History, Wikimedia Commons

Otto Lilienthal

"The Flying Man" Otto Lilienthal's glider designs and tests proved that "heavier than air" flight was possible, laying the groundwork for the future of aviation. 

Portrait of Otto Lilienthal - pre-1896A. Regis, Wikimedia Commons

Icarus

Lilienthal built the first modern wing, and started flying his own gliders in 1891. Tragically, in 1896, during one of these flights, his glider stalled. Lilienthal fell 50 feet and broke his neck, passing the next day.

Otto Lilienthal Gliding Experiment - 1894Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Charles Ligetti

Charles Ligeti's Ligeti Stratos looked like no other aircraft in the world. With its closed wing design, Ligeti's aircraft was incredibly lightweight and nimble. 

Unfortunately, Ligeti lost control of the craft during a flight in 1987, and died upon impact.

Ultralight airplanes flyingMislik, Shutterstock

Thomas Midgley Jr.

A chemist whose inventions like tetraethyl lead and chlorofluorocarbons were revolutionary, when Thomas Midgley Jr. contracted polio, he also invented a system of ropes and pulleys to help get him in and out of bed.

1944, his body was found asphyxiated and entangled in the contraption he'd designed.

Thomas Midgley, Jr. - American mechanical engineer and chemist - 1930Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

William Nelson

While working for General Electric, William Nelson invented a new way to make a motor-powered bicycle. While testing his invention on a hill by his home, he crashed and perished on impact.

New e-bike, made by Dutch industrial cooperation - 1932Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Percy Pilcher

Percy Pilcher was England's Otto Lilienthal. Unlike Lilienthal, however, Pilcher actually built a motorized aircraft. Unfortunately, he never got to test it.

Mechanical failures delayed the first flight—and before it could happen, Pilcher perished in a glider accident.

Percy Pilcher (19th century photograph)Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

William Pitt

Canadian William Pitt invented the underwater cable ferry, which vastly improved the infrastructure in his native New Brunswick—but Pitt wasn't around to see it. 

In 1909, Pitt fell into the machinery of one of his ferries and succumbed to his gruesome injuries.

Old Cable Ferry - 1939Marion Post Wolcott , Adam Cuerden, Wikimedia Commons

Franz Reichelt

An Austro-Hungarian tailor with big dreams, Franz Reichelt designed and made the first-ever coat with a parachute inside. 

He told people he would test it with a dummy—then at the last second strapped the coat on himself and leaped from the first deck of the Eiffel Tower. He should have used the dummy.

Franz Reichelt, before the fatal attempt - 1912Agence de presse Meurisse, Wikimedia Commons

Stockton Rush

Stockton Rush was the pilot and engineer of the OceanGate Titan submersible. In 2023, the craft imploded while on a dive to take tourists to the Titanic. Rush and the four other passengers lost their lives.

Cyclops 1 Submersible - 2015Isabeljohnson25, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Sabin Arnold Von Sochocky

Building on the work of Marie Curie, Dr. Sabin Arnold von Sochocky invented the first luminescent paint and started the United States Radium Corporation.

Maria Skłodowska-Curie MuseumJorge Láscar, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Radioactive Man

Several of the company's workers lost their lives from radium poison, and von Sochocky later passed of aplastic anemia, the same affliction as Marie Curie.

Woman in hospital bed - 1900Library of Congress, Picryl

Sylvester H. Roper

Sylvester H. Roper's Roper steam velocipede was one of the first-ever motorcycles. He suffered a fatal crash during a public speed trial. 

An autopsy showed he suffered a heart attack, but it's unknown if the crash caused the heart attack—or the other way around. 

Sylvester H Roper - 1896Boston Daily Globe, Wikimedia Commons

Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier

Balloons may seem safer than planes, but gravity is gravity. Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier made the first-ever manned free-balloon flight in a balloon of his own design.

Later, during an attempt to cross the English Channel, he was in a fatal balloon crash—the first air crash fatality in the history of aviation.

Aviation Fatality - Pilatre De Rozier And RomainUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Henry Smolinski

Henry Smolinski dreamed of a world with flying cars, so he built the AVE Mizar. It was, quite literally, a Ford Pinto with wings and an aircraft engine.

Brown Ford Pinto - 2004User Morven, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

It Wasn't Ready

During the AVE Mizar's first test flight, the right wing strut failed. Smolinsky himself piloted the craft on its second flight—and the wing strut failed again.

Reports say that the wing structure detached from the Pinto. Smolinsky and AVE Vice President Harold Blake both perished in the crash.

Advanced Vehicle Engineers (AVE) Mizar [1973] N68X Oxnard Airport - 1973Doug Duncan, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Karel Soucek

Professional stuntman Karel Soucek invented a "shock-absorbent barrel". He personally demonstrated the device by climbing inside before dropping it from the roof of the Houston Astrodome.

The barrel was supposed to land in a water tank, but the aim was off. Soucek landed on the metal rim of the tank and was fatally injured.

Karel Soucek In Barrel - 1984nflibrary ,Wikimedia Commons

Francis Edgar Stanley

Francs Edgar Stanley invented the "Stanley Steamer" automobile and built a successful automotive company. But he still had to share the road with wagons—and his impatience cost him.

Image of Francis Edgar Stanley - 1882Francis Edgar Stanley, Wikimedia Commons

Road Rage

In 1918, while driving one of his Stanley Steamers, Stanley got stuck behind two farm wagons moving side-by-side, blocking the road. Stanley tried to go around them, but he lost control and careened into a woodpile. He did not survive.

Stanley Brothers In One Of Their Steam CarsUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Henri Thuile

Henri Thuile's high-speed steam locomotive reached a top-speed of 73mph, revolutionary for the time. But speed is dangerous: During one test, Thuile leaned too far out of the car and was fatally struck by a pole.

Locomotive Thuile - 1900Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Max Valier

A pioneer in rocketry, German engineer Max Valier invented the liquid-fueled rocket engine. At age 35, however, an alcohol-fuelled rocket ignited as he was working on it at his test bench. He instantly perished in the explosion.

Photograph shows Max Valier's German rocket car on display.Library of Congress, Picryl

Aurel Vlaicu

The Wright Brothers' successful flight inspired engineers all over the world. Romanian Aurel Vlaicu's planes were some of the most advanced in Europe, but in 1913, he crashed the A. Vlaicu Nr. II, a plane he had flown many times, while trying to be the first person to cross the Carpathian Mountains by air.

Aurel Vlaicu portraitPersonal collection, Wikimedia Commons

Webster Wagner

Webster Wagner was a railway pioneer who invented the sleeping car and perfected ventilation in railway cars. In 1882, his body was found crushed between two of the sleeper cars that he invented.

Sen. Webster Wagner - 1882Notman Photographic Studios, CC BY-SA 4.0,Wikimedia Commons

Henry Winstanley

Henry Winstanley built world's first offshore lighthouse, which began operation in 1696. He often bragged about how safe his design was, saying he wished he could shelter inside it "during the greatest storm there ever was".

The lighthouse was washed away during the Great Storm of 1703, with Winstanley and five other men inside.

Henry Winstanley - Edystone Lighthouse - between 1699 and 1708Henry Winstanley, Wikimedia Commons


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