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Franz Reichelt wearing his parachute suit

8 inventors who were killed by their inventions

Image: Franz Reichelt wearing his parachute suit | Public Domain

Unfortunately, not everyone can be a Thomas Edison or a George Stephenson. While the majority of inventors are remembered for something that changed the world and made our lives better, a few came up with something so flawed or downright dangerous that it not only didn’t work but also proved fatal to its creator.

Here we take a look at eight inventors killed by their own inventions.

1. Franz Reichelt

Reichelt was an Austrian-Hungarian tailor living in Paris at the turn of the last century. He became obsessed with inventing a parachute that would save the lives of aviators forced to abandon their planes in the early days of flight. He tested each suit on dummies, dropping them out of the window of his fifth-floor apartment. While early tests proved successful, later refinements made the suit worse.

Undeterred by this setback, Reichelt convinced himself that the suit wasn’t deploying because it wasn’t being tested from a sufficient enough height. He managed to persuade the Prefecture of Police to let him test his suit from the first platform of the Eiffel Tower. Permission was swiftly withdrawn when Reichelt turned up to the tower and informed the police that he intended to test the suit himself instead of using a dummy. The tailor decided to go ahead without the necessary permissions and promptly jumped from the platform before anyone could stop him. The parachute failed to open properly and Reichelt plummeted 187 feet to his death.

2. Jim Fixx

While Jim Fixx didn’t invent running, he did bring the pastime of jogging to public attention. He kicked off the craze when his best seller, The Complete Book of Running, hit shelves in 1977. The book sold over a million copies and catapulted Fixx to fame and fortune.

Unfortunately, Fixx wasn’t able to live the life of a rich, best-selling author for long. On 20th July 1984, he went out for a jog and died of a heart attack. He was just 52 years old and has sadly been the butt of jokes ever since.

3. Karel Soucek

Soucek was a professional stuntman from Czechoslovakia who designed a nine-foot-tall bright red barrel. The purpose of said barrel was to protect him as he went over Niagara Falls in 1984. The 1,000-foot drop over the falls was a roaring success, and it gained Soucek enough fame and money for him to open his own museum at the falls. However, it also persuaded a company to sponsor another drop, this time into a water tank from the roof of the Houston Astrodome.

Despite warnings from Evel Knievel, Soucek dropped from the roof in the barrel, which smashed into the side of the tank instead of into the water. The stuntman was badly injured and died shortly after being dragged from his barrel in front of a horrified audience.

4. Thomas Andrews

While the celebrated naval architect Thomas Andrews may not have invented the ship or even the ocean liner, he was the man behind the vessel involved in one of the greatest maritime disasters of all time - the Titanic. In 1907, Andrews began work on three new ocean liners that would be the largest and most luxurious ever built. The ships he and his team designed were the Britannic, the Olympic and the Titanic.

Overruled about the height of watertight bulkheads and the number of lifeboats the ships should carry, Andrews made the fateful decision to travel to New York on Titanic’s maiden voyage. He went down with his creation along with over 1,500 other people when the ship struck an iceberg and sank on 15th April 1912.

5. Henry Smolinski

Henry Smolinski was an aeronautical engineering graduate who, along with his fellow graduate, Harold Balke, formed the Advanced Vehicle Engineers company in the early 1970s to build a flying car. They built two prototypes, both of which consisted of a Ford Pinto welded to the airframe of a Cessna Skymaster plane.

During a test flight in 1973, with Smolinski at the controls and Blake in the passenger seat, bad welding caused the Cessna to separate from the Pinto, causing the contraption to plummet to the ground and crash. Both men were killed instantly.

6. Dr Sabin Arnold von Sochocky

Whilst it seems the height of insanity to modern eyes, there was a brief but deadly craze for using radioactive substances in everyday household items. At the height of the fad in 1915, Dr Sabin Arnold von Sochocky formed the Radium Luminous Materials Co. which employed teenage girls to paint the dials of watches with radium-laced paint so they would glow in the dark.

The girls would lick the end of their brushes after dipping them in the paint to shape them, swallowing small amounts of the deadly substance each time. Within five years, most had developed bone injuries, and by 1924, nine of them had died. Sochocky fared no better. He died of aplastic anaemia caused by exposure to radiation in 1928 at the age of 45.

7. Thomas Midgely Jr.

For the major role he played in the development of leaded petrol and chlorofluorocarbons, Thomas Midgely Jr. was described by environmental historian J. R. McNeill as a man who ‘had more adverse impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth's history’. It was not those inventions that killed him, however.

Midgely contracted polio at the age of 51 in 1940 which left him severely disabled. In response, he invented an elaborate series of ropes and pulleys to help him get out of bed unaided. However, on 2nd November 1944, he was found dead. The official verdict was that he had become entangled in his invention and died by strangulation. Privately, however, his family believed he had committed suicide.

8. Cowper Phipps Coles

Coles was an inventor and a captain in the Royal Navy who invented a revolving gun turret during the Crimean War that was subsequently installed on several British ships. The design would eventually become the standard on all warships once engines replaced sails, allowing for large arcs of fire unimpeded by sails, masts and rigging.

In 1866, the Royal Navy agreed to build the HMS Captain, an experimental warship Coles designed. Launched three years later, Coles had not been present for most of the ship’s construction due to a sustained period of illness. As a result, the iron-hulled steamship was overweight and unstable. Shortly after midnight on 7th September 1870, HMS Captain capsised in a storm with the loss of 472 lives. Among them was Cowper Phipps Coles, who went down with his invention at the age of 51.