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10 Inventors Who Died Awful Deaths in Their Own Creations

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Inventing things is a challenging and uncertain gig. After all, there is no guarantee that what you think up will work. The madness of tinkering can perennially leave you in the trial-and-error stage, too. And with all the legalities around patents, new product marketing, manufacturing, and sales, even if you manage to bring your idea to market, there is no guarantee that you will make any money on it.

Of course, many succeed, even as many more fail. And with all the love people have for tinkering with gadgets and thinking up better ways to do things, something tells us there will always be a slew of inventors ready to improve upon some ancient process or product.

But what happens when the invention itself turns lethal? Forget about failed product launches or low sales; what is there to say about inventors for whom their own inventions lead directly to their death? You may think that’s a very rare event, but it is surprisingly common. In this list, we’ll take a look at ten of the many (many, many) cases in which inventors were killed by their own inventions. Creepy!

Related: 10 Inventions and Theories Made by Women but Credited to Men

10 Car Troubles

The First Motorcycle Ever: Why It’s Controversial

Let’s start things off with an unsettling four-for-one shot, shall we? When the automobile started to become a thing at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, it wasn’t just Henry Ford tinkering away in a factory with his assembly line. There were many inventors working on their versions of what would become cars, motorcycles, and other powered transportation vehicles.

They had various styles of engines and designs, and they all mostly lacked safety equipment. It was a wild time to be out on the roads before any basic safety measures were instituted. And with that, many people—including at least four very notable inventors—died while behind the wheel of these new and strange machines.

Take the story of Sylvester H. Roper. In 1896, he was perfecting his Roper steam velocipede, which was basically a very primitive form of the modern motorcycle. One day, he went out for a drive on it during a public speed trial. He wanted to show the world that his velocipede could handle roads and take people long distances.

But at some point during the ride, he suffered a heart attack and was incapacitated. As his heart seized up, he lost control of the pioneering bike, crashed, and died. Sadly, he wasn’t the only motorcycle fatality in that frame, either. In 1903, a General Electric employee named William Nelson invented his own unique way to motorize bicycles. He painstakingly put the model together, perfected the prototype, and then took it on a test run. But out on the road during the test, he crashed the motorized bike and was killed.

Inventors of more traditional early versions of the automobile were also at risk. In 1918, a tinkerer named Francis Edgar Stanley was killed when he was driving his groundbreaking Stanley Steamer automobile down a country road. He died after driving the car into a woodpile to avoid hitting a bunch of slow-moving farm wagons that were traveling along the path in front of him.

And in 1932, another major invention loss came in the car world. That year, Fred Duesenberg was making headlines for his powerful Duesenberg automobile. No car before his had as much power and speed. And, well, maybe it had too much speed because poor old Fred was killed in a high-speed road accident that year while driving the thing. His name and that of his car brand have since gone down in infamy as causing the fiery crash of the proud innovator and daring inventor.[1]

9 Otto Lilienthal

EN Otto Lilienthal: “FIRST IN FLIGHT” – 7 Seconds for Eternity

Before the Wright brothers, there was Karl Wilhelm “Otto” Lilienthal. Born in 1848 in Germany, Lilienthal took to the skies in his adulthood. He became known around his home nation as the “flying man” because he pioneered the use of hang gliders to make successful flights. Of course, he wasn’t exactly going coast to coast like a modern commercial jet. But Lilienthal figured out in the 1890s what nobody had before him: how to make a “heavier than air” machine fly hundreds of yards and sometimes even further.

In turn, his pioneering flight attempts were well documented by newspapers and magazines published throughout the 1890s. And that was a big deal because Lilienthal was seen as an authority on the idea of flight. In that way, he slowly convinced the public that there was some merit to careening through the air at high speeds.

Sadly, fate had other plans for Lilienthal than he’d hoped for with primitive airplane greatness. For a while there, he rose steadily. He developed the concept of the modern wing as we know it today. He even put forth the first series of so-called airplanes (which were really just gliders) and mass-produced them for the world. But even though he may technically be seen as the first-ever modern person to fly, his time in the skies proved short.

On August 9, 1896, Lilienthal was out flying when his glider unexpectedly stalled high in the air. It turned downward while hanging over 50 feet (15 meters) in the sky and plummeted like a rock. Lilienthal broke his neck in the brutal crash and died the following day. He is still considered the “father of flight” for his pre-Wright brothers’ innovations. It’s sad, though, that he couldn’t live to see flight technology develop into the 20th century.[2]

8 Franz Reichelt

The Story of Franz Reichelt | A Short Documentary | Fascinating Horror

Franz Reichelt was a German-born inventor who moved to France in the early 20th century and eventually became a naturalized citizen there. He was known as the so-called “Flying Tailor” because he had spent countless hours crafting parachutes, sewing them together, and perfecting their designs. He was, in that way, a parachuting pioneer.

However, his obsession with the idea of being able to softly land from up high in the sky ended up causing his demise. And while Parisians probably should have seen it coming—and indeed, many skeptics among them did—Reichelt’s tragic invention-related death was not only grisly but also extremely public.

On February 4, 1912, Reichelt climbed the Eiffel Tower in Paris. He was intending to show that he had developed the perfect parachute. He spent years focused on saving aviators from falling out of the sky should they be forced to leave an aircraft in flight. And after struggling for years to get his parachute right, he felt he had done it. So he needed the Eiffel Tower as a suitably high spot to test the legitimacy of his parachute. That morning, he finally received permission to use it as a drop point for a test dummy.

But when the morning in question came around, Reichelt climbed the tower with his parachutes and suddenly informed officials that he wasn’t going to drop a dummy at all! No, he was instead going to jump from the famed tower himself while wearing the parachute. He would then land safely and softly on the ground, he assured them, thereby proving the effectiveness of his invention.

Media members and officials alike were very skeptical of this, but somehow, they let him make the jump. And you can probably guess what happened next. Reichelt plummeted immediately to his death after his parachute failed to deploy. In total, he fell exactly 187 feet (57 meters) before he was killed instantly upon landing on the hard ground below. Ouch![3]

7 Michael Dacre

The Failure of the AVCEN Jetpod | Fascinating Horror Shorts

Michael Robert Dacre was an inventor born in the 1950s who spent much of his adult life figuring out how to make a flying car—well, sort of. He created something called the AVCEN Jetpod in the late 1980s. It was supposed to be the wave of the future for small-scale transportation. That is, it was a very tiny and quiet aircraft that needed less than 150 yards (137 meters) of space to take off and land on mini-runways. It was tiny, efficient, and incredibly easy to use and direct to its destination.

Dacre envisioned it as an aircraft that could transport business executives from one city to another. Think of it like a medium-range air taxi; it wouldn’t fly from New York to Los Angeles, but it could fly from, say, Los Angeles to Bakersfield to drop off an executive for an important business meeting or something.

Even better yet, because it was so small and it needed such little runway room, it could theoretically land in the middle of very busy cities. At low altitudes, it wouldn’t interfere with commercial jets flying high in the sky. And its engines were quiet enough to not disturb people on the ground below. Sounds great, right? Dacre sure thought so.

Along with co-workers and investors, he perfected the AVCEN Jetpod from the late 1980s through the early 2000s. Finally, in August of 2009, he completed a stunning new prototype of the Jetpod. Wanting to try it out, Dacre took the thing for a spin. He attempted to take off three times but failed each time.

Then, on the fourth attempt, he successfully managed to lift it off the ground. Sadly, very shortly into his flight and less than 1,000 feet (304 meters) in the air, the Jetpod became uncontrollable and crashed. Dacre was killed instantly, and his mangled body was found later in the wreckage.[4]

6 John Day

The World’s First Submarine Accident – John Day

Born in 1740, John Day has the distinction of inventing the first-ever (very primitive) submarine and being the first person to ever die in a submarine incident. He was an English carpenter and wheelwright in his life. And he was obsessed with the thought of being able to dive deep into the ocean and explore without an engine. So, with the financial help of a notorious English gambler named Christopher Blake, Day built a so-called “diving chamber” out of wood.

He attached his rudimentary submarine to a 50-ton sloop called the Maria, then set out in Plymouth Sound just off the port city of Plymouth, England, to try it out. His intention was to offset the submarine with ballast weights and dive down into the ocean, after which he could then rise to the surface. Wanting to make a little money over it, his gambling buddy Blake bet Day that he couldn’t descend to 130 feet (40 meters) below the surface and stay there for 12 hours.

Somehow, Day liked those odds and took the bet. On June 22, 1774, the Maria was towed to a location just off Drake’s Island in the Plymouth Sound. There, Day grabbed a candle, some water, and some biscuits and boarded the makeshift submarine. It had a hammock inside meant for a passenger, and he was intent on waiting out the 12 hours with ease.

As you can no doubt already assume, that didn’t happen. Day’s calculations of the trim were entirely wrong, and his boat sank immediately into the depths of the sea. It’s technically unknown whether he died from asphyxiation, hypothermia, or catastrophic structural failure within the diving chamber. Still, either way, Day was never heard from again. There’s no word on how Blake possibly collected on his “winning” bet![5]

5 William Pitt

Gondola Point Ferries | Frozen River Winter Crossing

William Pitt was a Canadian inventor and engineer born in 1841. Throughout his career, he worked tirelessly on boat traffic. That sounds like a boring gig, perhaps, but for more than 30 years, he was well-known in the province of New Brunswick for his work. And that was important work: people relied on his ferries to transport them from one side of the land to another.

Specifically, this choke point came on the Kennebecasis River between what is known as Gondola Point on one side and Reed Point on the other. Even today, people rely on those ferries to get to work and school and then back home again. That’s their version of rush hour, if you will. So locals in New Brunswick came to know Pitt as an affable and critically important man regarding their unique way of life.

In 1903, Pitt invented a groundbreaking underwater cable system for his ferries. It was installed along the Kennebecasis trail and went into immediate use. By the next spring, ferry traffic surged, and Pitt was, in his own way, a conqueror of the local environment and regional way of life. Sadly, in 1909, all that came to a tragic and horrific end.

While maintaining his newly invented and very unique ferry system, Pitt fell into some of the machinery at one of the landing points. He was severely injured in the fall and, shortly after that, succumbed to the accident. One of the two ferries that still operates today from Gondola Point is named the “William Pitt II” in his honor.[6]

4 Thomas Midgley Jr.

The Man Who Accidentally Killed The Most People In History

Of all the people on this list, Thomas Midgley Jr. may have the most bizarre and star-crossed invention tale. For one, he was the person who developed leaded gasoline via tetraethyl lead. He also invented and produced some of the first chlorofluorocarbons ever created, better known in the United States for centuries after their invention by the brand name Freon.

Both of those things would later come to be banned from common use because they were so harmful to both human health and the environment. So, in that regard, Midgley isn’t exactly a friend to progress, the earth, or the future that carried on long after his 1944 death.

But it’s that 1944 death that we are here to talk about today. See, in addition to inventing some pretty harmful stuff, Midgley also suffered from polio. He first contracted the disease in 1940. By 1944, he was completely disabled by it. But the notorious tinkerer didn’t want to be held back by the lack of his physical abilities.

So, Midgley—who was granted more than 100 patents on a wide variety of things throughout his life—decided to do something about it. He fashioned a very intricate rope and pulley system over his bed. This would allow him to sit up, lift himself, and get out of bed in order to do things around the house. Sounds great and inspiring, doesn’t it?

Well, it ends tragically. In 1944, Midgley somehow became entangled in the ropes of this powerful pulley system. He appeared to have been trying to get out of bed when he got caught up in the ropes and died of what authorities later determined was strangulation.

Privately, some people wondered whether it hadn’t been purposeful—that is, whether Midgley had died by suicide in his own invention. Regardless, the notorious tinkerer finally tinkered with his last gadget, and it was in its usage that his life was snuffed out.[7]

3 Webster Wagner

Pullman rail cars: A detour back through time

Webster Wagner was a notable inventor-turned-politician who lived in New York in the 19th century. As a young man in the 1830s, he went into the wagon-making business with his brother James. But by 1842, the company was dead. Wagner had better ideas for where to work, especially in the railroad industry, which was booming at that point.

So he became an employee of the New York Central Railroad. During his time working for that growing company, he invented the sleeping car, as well as the luxurious parlor car. He was credited with creating new ways to get passengers to various places in much more comfort and ease than ever before. In turn, the NY Central Railroad saw a surge in business.

Wagner felt great about those inventions, so he spun off and founded his own Wagner Palace Car Company in the upstate New York town of Buffalo. After the competing Pullman Company failed to put his brand out of business, Wagner eventually was able to merge his firm with theirs. Richer than he could have ever dreamed by then, Wagner started a political career.

In 1871, he was first elected as a Republican in the New York State Assembly. He was then re-elected again and again to new terms over the next decade. Sadly, though, in 1882, he was killed in a railroad accident—and in his own invention. A luxury train car of the New York Central Railroad in which Wagner was riding collided with one from the Hudson River Railroad on January 13, 1882. Wagner’s body was found among the many crushed between the two rail cars. He was killed by his own creation… decades after he created it.[8]

2 Valerian Abakovsky

Aerowagon by Abakovsky

Valerian Ivanovich Abakovsky was a Russian inventor born in Riga, in what is now the nation of Latvia, in 1895. Like many on this list, he grew up in the early 20th century when technological progress was booming. And specifically, that meant major progress with powered transportation options.

For Abakovsky, he was quickly intrigued by the concept of high-speed rail. While we still discuss that technology today, and nations like Japan are notorious for their incredible high-speed rail systems, it was barely more than an idea during Abakovsky’s time. Well, he hoped to change that and take it from idea to invention. So, in his early 20s, he invented what came to be known as the Aerowagon.

The Aerowagon was a high-speed rail device that worked with a plane-like propeller out in front. Abakovsky intended to use it to transport Soviet dignitaries, military members, and more from one place to another at very high speeds. Russia is a massive place, of course, and the thought of speeding up the trip from Moscow to Siberia, for example, was extremely tempting.

Unfortunately for Abakovsky, the speeds at which he was building out his airplane-like railcar were too great for him to handle. On July 24, 1921, he and a host of other engineers and Soviet scientists were killed in a horrific crash of the Aerowagon. It was just three months before Abakovsky’s 26th birthday.[9]

1 Michael Hughes

The DIY Rocket Tragedy | To Prove The Earth Wasn’t Round | Short Documentary

You may remember the name Michael Hughes. He was the American-born limousine driver-turned-rocket scientist known affectionately as “Mad Mike.” During his life, Hughes claimed to believe that the earth was flat, which brought him lots of attention. He then used that attention to raise funds to build his homemade rocket ships. And sadly, that rocket drive was the thing that killed him.

On February 22, 2020, the daredevil went to the desert outside Barstow, California, to pilot his rocket up high into the sky. He was filming the stunt for an upcoming Science Channel television series called Homemade Astronauts. As the title suggests, Hughes was the focal point of a show dedicated to people who invented rockets and spaceships at home and then went to test them out with the hopes of one day flying into space. Well, Hughes never made it that far.

With cameras rolling and journalists and media members all around to see his launch attempt outside Barstow, Hughes fired off his rocket and shot into the air. Something went horribly wrong as he surged straight up into the sky, though.

It appeared as though the rocket’s parachute, which was meant to be used for a soft landing, somehow deployed early and became detached from the craft itself. Thus, with no way to safely land in a soft and controlled manner, the ship fell at high speed back down to the earth, ending Hughes’ rocket run and killing him instantly.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen