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Five Inventors Killed By Their Own Creations

Being an inventor means taking risks. Some risks go too far.

By Allison Futterman
Feb 11, 2022 6:00 AM
Credit:(Tom Meaker/Shutterstock)


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Back in 1785, French chemist, engineer and aviation pioneer, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier attempted to cross the English Channel in a balloon he designed. It was an experiment, using both hydrogen and hot air to power the balloon. Unfortunately, Rozier was killed when the balloon caught fire and crashed. Other scientists and inventors have died from the results of their own work. For example, Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, resulting from years of radiation exposure. Thomas Andrews, the principal designer of the Titanic, went down with the ship on its maiden voyage. In honor of Inventors’ Day Feb.11, let’s look at five inventors who lost their lives due to their own creations.

William Bullock

Credit:(via Wikimedia Commons)

Having already invented a lathe cutting machine, cotton press, seed planter and a grain drill, William Bullock turned his attention to the printing press. The rotary press already existed, but Bullock made significant improvements on the original design, which became the web rotary press. Enabling large rolls of paper to continuously be fed into the machine, the press then folded and cut the paper. In 1867, he was working on a press that was being installed at the Philadelphia Public Ledger newspaper. A belt became detached from a pulley, and instead of shutting the machine off to fit ix, Bullock kicked it in an attempt to get the belt back in place.

His foot and lower leg were trapped and mangled by the machine. Even though surgeons tried to save his leg, Bullock would end up developing gangrene. He was taken back into surgery to amputate, but he died during the procedure.

Horace Lawson Hunley

Credit:(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A lawyer, legislator and merchant, Hunley joined engineers James McClintock and Baxter Watson in the design innovation (and funding) of a submarine. In 1864, the H.L. Hunley became the first combat submarine to successfully sink a warship, the USS Housatonic — a Union ship that was attacked in Charleston Harbor during the Civil War. Despite this achievement, the H.L. Hunley sank before it could safely return. During a dive, the front of the vessel got stuck in the bottom of the harbor. All eight people aboard died, including Hunley.

Thomas Midgley Jr.

Credit:(Plazak, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

While Thomas Midgley Jr. was certainly a brilliant inventor and scientist, his legacy is tarnished because his work led to harmful environmental impacts. He came up with the idea of adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline, as a solution to engine knocking. While it was effective, it was also a toxic pollutant that damaged emission control equipment. Next, he synthesized what we would come to know as Freon, for use as a refrigerant. This led to the expansion of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) use, which caused immense damage to the ozone. But Midgley Jr.’s death wasn’t related to his chemical creations. Midgley Jr. contracted polio, which resulted in paralysis below his waist. He disliked having to be lifted in and out of bed and worked to find a better way. He created a complex pulley system to get himself out of bed, which did work. However, one fateful day, he got caught up in the device and was strangled to death

Louis Slotin

Credit:(Los Alamos National Laboratory, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

While working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, physicist and chemist Louis Slotin tragically fell victim to his own experiment. He was showing colleagues how to bring together two halves of a dome-shaped plutonium core. The experiment was called “tickling the dragon’s tail.” He had done it before, but this time, the screwdriver he used to separate the halves slipped. This caused the two parts to touch, causing a critical reaction. Slotin experienced immediate effects from the radiation that was released — including burning in his hand and a sour taste in his mouth. He deteriorated at the hospital, suffering from internal burns, mental confusion, blisters and swollen hands. Eventually, all his bodily systems broke down and he died, at age 35. Prior to Slotin’s death, his colleague, Harry Daghlian died from radiation poisoning from the same core. He was building a shield around it with tungsten carbide bricks when he dropped one on top. This caused a critical reaction and he was exposed to a deadly amount of radiation. After Slotin’s death, the scientists started referring to the core as “The Demon Core.”

Francis Edgar Stanley

Credit:(Tom Meaker/Shutterstock)

Along with his twin brother, Freelan Oscar Stanley, Francis Edgar Stanley created the Stanley Dry Plate Company. Their business manufacturing photography dry plates flourished, earning $1 million dollars a year in the late 1890s. They went on to create the famous Stanley Steamer automobile. This car was known for speed and in 1906, the “Rocket” version set a record of 127 mph. Orders for the cars were pouring in, and the Stanley Motor Carriage Company became extremely successful. Eventually, electric starters and gas-powered engines gained in popularity and steam power fell out of favor, and the company closed in 1924. Several years before the company closed, Francis Stanley lost his life. In 1918, he was driving one of his own cars while in Massachusetts. He swerved to avoid an obstacle, causing his car to flip and hit a woodpile. Severely injured, he died on the way to the hospital.

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