Inventors spend years living with their designs; tinkering with them, perfecting them until they are ready to show them off to the world. Most toil away in obscurity for the rest of their lives, although there are obvious exceptions. Yet there are also those whose innovations not only attracted the world’s attention but which – one way or another – sadly resulted in the inventor's death, too.
7. Franz Reichelt – Parachute Suit
Franz Reichelt (1879 – 1912) was convinced that he could develop a suit that turned into a parachute for aviators. Known as the 'Flying Tailor' for his fateful jump (and other profession), the Austrian-born Frenchman lost his life when, on February 4, 1912, he leaped from the first platform of the Eiffel Tower wearing his design. Though he was supposed to be using a dummy, at the last minute he decided to test the invention himself. Unfortunately for Reichelt and his legacy, the belief that his invention would work turned out to be wishful thinking.
Photo montage for the article "L'inventeur d'un parachute se lance de le tour Eiffel et s'écrase sur le sol"
After Reichelt crashed to the ground in front of a crowd of spectators, he was rushed to hospital, even though he was plainly dead. There is a YouTube video of his fatal 187-foot jump that is accompanied by the commentary: "As though he sensed the horrible fate that awaited him, the unfortunate inventor hesitated long before throwing himself into the void."
6. Max Valier – Liquid-Fueled Rocket Engine
Max Valier (1895 – 1930) was at the forefront of rocketry science in Germany and one of the founders of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt ("Spaceflight Society") – many of whose members were responsible for making 20th-century spaceflight happen.
By the 1930s, the society was working with liquid-fueled rockets, and Valier was behind the wheel for the first test drive of a rocket car with liquid propulsion. Unfortunately, this type of engine was to be his undoing: a month later, on May 17, 1930, a rocket Valier was working on in a Berlin lab exploded, shooting a metal fragment into his pulmonary artery and killing him.
5. Otto Lilienthal – Glider
Known as the 'Glider King', Otto Lilienthal (1848 – 1896) was no fly-by-night inventor (so to speak!). The German inventor and aviation pioneer undertook controlled experiments and was the first to document successful repeated gliding flights.
Thanks to Lilienthal’s efforts and the write-ups about them in the press, the scientific community and the general public started to realize that flying machines were possible. Lilienthal was also the first person to control a heavier-than-air aircraft in flight – an achievement that earned him the nickname the 'Father of Flight'. The Wright brothers also followed his work and credited him as their inspiration. Sadly, after more than 2,000 flights, Lilienthal was killed when, on August 9, 1896, his glider stalled at a height of 56 feet. The falls broke his back and he died the next day, shortly after uttering his final words, "Sacrifices must be made".
4. Harry K. Daghlian, Jr. and Louis Slotin – Demon Core
American Harry K. Daghlian, Jr. (1921 – 1945) and Canadian Louis Slotin (1910 – 1946) were physicists who were both exposed to radiation and killed in similar accidents while working on the atom bomb at the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico. On Aug 21, 1945, Daghlian dropped a tungsten carbide brick onto a plutonium bomb core by accident – causing it to become "supercritical". In a panic, Daghlian unsuccessfully tried to knock the brick off the assembly and then had to partially dismantle the tungsten bricks to stop the nuclear reaction. He died of acute radiation poisoning 25 days later.
The second victim of a 'criticality accident' – after the screwdriver he was using slipped – Louis Slotin set off a fission reaction by mistake on May 21, 1946. He died even more quickly, just nine days after the incident – which caused a blue glow and an intense heat wave felt by Slotin. Oddly enough, the experiment he was working on used the same core of plutonium that had killed Daghlian. It was later nicknamed the 'Demon Core' owing to its deadly past.
3. Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier – Roziere Balloon
Frenchman Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier (1754 – 1785) was a trailblazing aviator with a couple of claims to fame. The first of these was that he, along with the Marquis d'Arlandes, made the first manned, untethered balloon flight, on 21 November 1783. The second was far more unfortunate: on 15 June 1785 he and his companion Pierre Romain became the first recorded air crash fatalities when they were killed trying to cross the English channel.
Because the Montgolfier balloon he had used in the first unmanned flight would not have been suitable for the longer attempt, de Rozier developed the “Rozière”, which used both hydrogen and heated lifting gas. On the ill-fated voyage, a wind-change pushed the two men back over land, their balloon suddenly deflated, and they fell to their deaths from a height of around 1,500 feet. Sadly, de Rozier's former fiancée died eight days later, some believe by suicide.
2. Horace Lawson Hunley – CSS H.L. Hunley Submarine
Horace Lawson Hunley (1823 – 1863) fought on the side of the Confederates during the American Civil War. As a marine engineer he invented hand-powered submarines, one of which killed him and was later named after him.
The H. L. Hunley submarine had already had some deaths chalked up to it: the first crew was engulfed by water when a ship passed while the sub's hatches were open; five died. A second crew was recruited and, during a routine exercise, Hunley himself decided to take command. On October 15, 1863, the submarine sank and all eight on board lost their lives. Unbelievably, it was later raised and gained prominence as the first submarine in history to successfully sink an enemy ship.
1. Aurel Vlaicu – Airplane
Aurel Vlaicu (1882 – 1913) was an engineer and airplane inventor born in Romania. He built his first plane and flew it in a maiden flight on June 17, 1910. Vlaicu went on to build a second plane, the Vlaicu Nr. II, and won numerous prizes at an air show in 1912. Sadly, he died in his own invention on September 13, 1913 when the Vlaicu II failed as he attempting to cross the Carpathian Mountains. Vlaicu had already been building a new plane, the Vlaicu III, but when he heard two other Romanian pilots were planning to try and cross the Carpathians he made an ill-judged decision to use his old and worn out Vlaicu II rather than wait for the new one to be finished. It was a decision that cost him his life.