On February 4, 1912, Franz Reichelt, an Austrian-born French tailor is standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower wearing a parachute suit of his own design. After countless tests where his invention failed to safely guide test dummies to the ground, Reichelt concluded that the problem was a result of not starting at a high enough point. He received permission from the Parisian police to conduct a test from atop the tower, but at the last minute revealed that he would be wearing the parachute suit, not a crash dummy. At 8:22 am, he climbed the guardrail, tested the wind by throwing a piece of paper into the air, waited for forty seconds, then jumped. The parachute suit wrapped around his body and he plummeted to the ground before crashing into the icy ground at the foot of the tower. He died instantly.
Reichelt wasn’t the first, and most certainly wont be the last, inventor to be killed by their own invention. There’s a cinematic mystique to the moment where the inventor or scientist, in a fit of courage, uses themselves to test their daring hypothesis. But unlike the movies, sometimes it goes terribly wrong.
In the pursuit of flight alone, theres Ismail ibn Hammad al-Jawhari, a scholar from Farab who died in 1010 when he tried to fly with wooden wings and a rope; there’s Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, who died when his self-designed balloon failed to cross the English channel in 1785; and there’s Henry Smolinsk who crashed his flying car designed after a Ford Pinto in 1973.
William Nelson, a General Electric employee, found a way to motorize bicycles then died on the first prototype run in 1903. William Bullock created the rotary printing press which crushed his foot causing gangrene then death in 1867. In 1863, Horace Lawson Hunley, a Confederate marine engineer, created the first combat submarine, CSS Hunley, which sank twice and finally drowned him and the crew on its third time down.
We’re all familiar with the death of Marie Curie, the scientist who discovered how to isolate Radium, but then died of aplastic anemia from exposure to the ionizing radiation of the materials she was working with. But less is said about Valerian Abakovsky, who designed a high-speed railcar propelled by an aircraft engine. His invention, the Aerowagon, derailed and killed everybody on board, including Abakovsky, in 1921. Max Valier, a member of the amateur German rocketry society, Verein für Raumschiffahrt, died in 1930 when his alcohol-fueled engine exploded and vaporized him.
Thomas Midgley, Jr, was an American engineer and chemist who contracted polio. He devised a complicated system of ropes and pulleys to lift him from his bed. He became tangled in his apparatus and died from strangulation in 1944. Canadian stuntman Karel Soucek created a 9-foot-long shock-absorbant barrel and died in it when it was prematurely dropped 180 feet into a tank of water from the top of the Houston Astrodome.
This pattern of destruction by creation is more-or-less constant—as long as there are people daring to create unprecedented things, there will be deaths caused by those inventions. Ingenuity has its risks, but some ideas are simply awful. Always start with a crash dummy until you’re reasonably certain your creation won’t kill you.