Some Inventions Act as Learning Curves for Better Inventions

by M-Gillies


The Advanced Vehicle Engineers - AVE Mizar, attempting takeoff at Oxnard Airport, Oxnard, California in August of 1973.

Sometimes we have to be told when an idea is bad, like sticking a fork in a power outlet or using a knife to pry a piece of bread from a toaster, but for all those things that are clearly bad ideas, someone first, must have done it.

Fate and fame are a fickle mistress of irony for the struggles of an inventor. Never an easy undergoing to develop a solution to some of the world’s most profound complexities and limitations, the life of an inventor is a lonely tribulation of problem solving their creations through the wondrous art of trial and error. But such is the quandary of inventing, it is the nature of pushing the boundaries of what is possible; taking theory and applying them to reality in a pursuit to discover the next big thing and propel humanity to a new plane of exploration.

However, inventing is not a simple task for the would-be Edisons of the world. Inventions break, designs are modified, variables and improbabilities are re-evaluated, re-calculated and re-designed and sometimes, these inventions don’t necessarily prove to be remarkable breakthroughs, but rather alternative means of cutting one’s life shorter than intended.

Below is a compilation of some of the most famous inventors killed by their own inventions in a cruel fate of Darwinian curiosity and death-by-misadventure. However, as Otto Lilienthal once said of death in the pursuit of technological advancement, “small sacrifices must be made!”

1. Francis Tovey – Australian millionaire, Francis Peter Tovey was 81-years-old when he designed, constructed and programmed his own makeshift robot. While most people see a robot as being useful in housework and manufacturing assembly lines, Tovey had other intentions for his machine.

Distraught over recent demands from family members that he leave his home and enter assisted-living care, Tovey perused the Internet for information on how to design, construct and program a robot that would assist him in an act of euthanasia. In 2008, Tovey took his creation to the driveway of his property and activated his robot, programmed to fire three consecutive shots, each of which struck him with a killing blow.

2. Ismail ibn Hammad al-Jawhari – If man were meant to fly, surely he would have been born with wings, but that wasn’t the case for Ismail ibn Hammad al-Jawhari, a Muslim Kazakh Turkic scholar who was notable as being the author of the Arabic dictionary.

During 1010, Ismail Ibn Hammad al-Jawhair, climbed to the roof of a mosque and using two wooden wings, he addressed spectators with what would be his final words saying, “O people, no one has ever tried what I am about to do right now. I am going to fly now. The most important thing to do in this world is flying. Now I am going to do that.” Alas, he fell to his death.

3. Otto Lilenthal – Unlike Reichelt, Lilenthal was a pioneer of human aviation, and became infamous as the Glider King. Not only was he the first person to make repeated and successful gliding flights, but newspapers and magazines in many countries published photographs of Lilienthal gliding, which only encouraged the possibility of flying machines becoming practical reality. However, on a flight on August 9, 1896, Lilienthal fell 17 meters, breaking his spine. Prior to his death the next day, his last words spoken were, “Small sacrifices must be made!”

4. Franz Reichelt (The Flying Tailor) – In a nod to Icarus, an Austrian tailor decided to test his abilities of flight in 1912, after famously creating a strange hybrid overcoat/parachute. Determined to test the coat’s ability to battle the laws of gravity, Reichelt decided he would conduct his experiment from the first deck of the Eiffel Tower in front of a group of spectators and the camera crew. However, as he leapt over the railing to put man in air, he proceeded to fall straight down, dying upon impact.

5. William Bullock – It was in 1863 that American inventor William Bullock invented the rotary printing press, which quickly revolutionized the printing industry for its speed and efficiency, however, it would be that very same invention that would inadvertently take his life. While attempting to repair one of his printing presses, Bullock suffered injuries when he crushed his foot under one of the machines while trying to kick a pulley into place. His foot soon developed gangrene and Bullock died during an operation to amputate the infected limb on April 12, 1867.

6. Thomas Midgely, Jr. – With the threats of global warming, the depletion of the ozone layer and high atmospheric lead levels caused by large-scale combustion of leaded gasoline all over the world, one man who’s been said to have “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history can be thanked” – Thomas Midgely, Jr.. Midgely was an American chemist and engineer who contributed in the development of leaded gasoline and the synthesis of freon, but as with all toxic chemicals, Midgely contracted Polio and lead poisoning from his exposure to the chemicals which soon left him disabled on his bed.

Always a practical thinker, Midgely devised an elaborate system of strings and pulleys to help others lift him from his bed, but as irony would have it, the system failed when he accidentally became entangled within the ropes of his device. While some have also considered Midgely to be “the one human responsible for more deaths than any other in history”, his death at the age of 55 on November 2, 1944, is notable for the fact that both his inventions, leaded petrol and his pulley system, had each contributed to his death.

7. Marie Curie - Alongside her husband Pierre Curie, Marie was a joint winner of the Nobel Prize in 1903. It was during her career that she became famous as the French-Polish physicist and chemist who discovered a host of new elements, including radium and polonium, as well as developing the theory of radioactivity and the isolation of radioactive isotopes. However, as trial and error would show, she died of aplastic anaemia on July 4, 1934, from years of exposure to the damaging effects of ionizing radiation.

During this time, when the severe concern of radiation was unknown, Currie had carried out much of her work from a shed without any safety measures, and on numerous occasions carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket and even stored them in her desk drawer, commenting how the substance emitted a pretty blue-green light in the dark.

8. Michael Dacre – British aviation pioneer, Michael Dacre had a dream that one day his Jetpod would become a medium range air taxi that would be economically affordable for any person to use for cheap and quick transport from city to city.

Since 1998, the Jetpod was the main design proposal for Avcen Limited, however, it was in 2009 that the prototype for the Jetpod crashed during its fourth flight, killing the founder of the company Dacre, who was at the controls during that time.

9. Henry Winstanely – A famed English lighthouse architect and engineer, Winstanley constructed the first Eddystone lighthouse and determined to test the lighthouse’s strength should it be hit during a storm. Unfortunately for Winstanley, it was during the Great Storm of 1703, which would go down in history as the most severe storm ever recorded in the southern part of great Britain. While inside the lighthouse, the tower of stones collapsed, killing Winstanley and five others.

10. Harry K. Daghlian – It was during 1945, WWII had come to an end, but for the last four years, the United States with participation from the United Kingdom and Canada were well underway with the Manhattan Project. It was through this research and development program that the three countries worked to create and produce fissionable materials such as nuclear weapons.

Among those working with highly volatile materials was Harry K. Daghlian, an Armenian-American physicist. It was on August 21, 1945 when he accidentally irradiated himself during a critical mass experiment at a remote facility in New Mexico. It was while Daghlian was working alone performing neutron reflection experiments on what would become known as the Demon Core, when he accidentally dropped a brick on the core, he caused the core to go critical. However, acting quickly, he moved the brick away, but not in time to prevent a fatal dose of radiation from entering his system.

Twenty-five days later, Daghlian died from his acute radiation poisoning. Even with such a disastrous death, it wasn’t enough to stop another scientist from carrying on from where Daghlian failed.

11. Louis Slotin – Louis Slotin was a Canadian physicist and chemist, working for the Manhattan Project. It was shortly after the death of Harry K. Daghlian when he took over performing experiments with uranium and plutonium cores to dertermine their critical mass values.

However, Slotin accidentally initiated a fission reaction when, while using a screwdriver to separate the half-spheres of the Demon Core, he slipped causing a prompt critical reaction. This accident caused the room to glow blue with air ionization, meanwhile scientists in the room recorded feeling a heat wave.

While Slotin was able to prevent matters from becoming worse, it was not enough to prevent a hard radiation dose from entering his system. Even as he was rushed to a hospital, Slotin died nine days later, initiating a new protocol that ended all hands-on critical assembly work and only allowing operators the ability to conduct experiments through the use of remotely controlled machines.

12. Henry Smolinski - Since 400 BC it has been recorded that humankind has sought to fly like birds, whether it be constructed wings with feathers attached to one’s arms, crafting hybrid clothing to act as a kind of parachute, using hot air balloons or even gliders – for Henry Smolinski, an ex-Northrop Corporation aeronautical engineer, his desire was to create a flying car.

Hanna-Barbera may have teased us with a futuristic world where food came in pill form, houses were sky scrapers and that cars would fly. However, by the 1970s, such pursuit was still a pipe dream for some. Not Smolinski though. Using the rear portion of a Cessna Skymaster and combining it with a Ford Pinto, Smolinski had big dreams for his commercially available flying car. With projected production being planned to begin in 1974 and an estimated cost of between $18,300-29,000, the AVE Mizar (the name of the vehicle) could drive or fly passengers from point A to C at their own convenience.

However, during a test flight on September 11, 1973, the right wing strut detached from the Pinto forcing the Mizar to crash, killing both Smolinski and his associate, Harold Blake to be killed in a fiery crash.

Read more:

Henry Smolinski Killed by His Invention

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