20 Inventors Killed by their Own Inventions

20 Inventors Killed by their Own Inventions

D.G. Hewitt - May 11, 2019

20 Inventors Killed by their Own Inventions
At first, de Rozier’s balloon flights were a great success. Wikimedia Commons.

8. Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier was a French inventor who became the first person to die in an aviation accident

Ever since man first took to the skies, flying has been a risky business. While it may now be the safest form of travel, over the past 100 years, thousands of people have died in plane crashes. And a certain Frenchman called Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier was the first such fatality. The pioneering aviator died when his hot air balloon crashed during an attempted crossing of the English Channel. Dying alongside him was his compatriot and fellow inventor Pierre Romain – and the two of them went down in history as the first recorded flight fatalities in human history.

De Rozier made his attempted crossing of the sea between England and France in the summer of 1785. By that point, he had already carried out several successful trips in his hot air balloon. Most notably, he took to the skies in front of the French king. This alone made him a huge celebrity in his native country and inspired inventors around the world to come up with ways of flying increasingly longer distances. Despite his inglorious end, De Rozier is still credited with being one of the true fathers of manned flight. To this day, the modern hybrid gas and hot air balloon is named the Roziere balloon in his honor.

20 Inventors Killed by their Own Inventions
Aurel Vlaicu died in his own plane while getting ready for an historic flight. Doza de Bine.

7. Aurel Vlaicu was a Romanian flying ace and inventor who had dreams of soaring above the mountains in his own plane

As a young man, Aurel Vlaicu left his native Romania to study engineering in Munich. Whilst in the German city, he became fascinated by flight and began designing his own aircraft using nothing more than wood, paper and rubber bands. Years later, he had the chance to make much bigger models and to fly them, too. Vlaicu secured funding from the Romanian Ministry of War and, in 1910, he made his first flight. At first, he flew gliders. But then he designed a powered plane and took to the skies in that. His initial flights were so successful that by 1913, he was ready to try and become the first man to fly over the Carpathian Mountains.

In September of 1913, Vlaicu took to the skies in a plane he had designed and built himself. On a practice run ahead of his planned flight over the country’s biggest mountain range, his plane came down hard whilst coming in to land. Vlaicu was killed instantly. Some of his peers suspected sabotage. However, it’s much more likely that his plane simply stalled at the wrong time. Despite never making his record-breaking flight, Vlaicu is still remembered as a national hero in Romania and celebrated as a true aviation pioneer.

20 Inventors Killed by their Own Inventions
James Douglas was killed with the very machine he introduced to Scotland. eBaum’s World.

6. James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton, invented a brutally effective killing machine and ended up losing his own head on it

In 1564, the city of Edinburgh invited inventors to submit their designs for a clean, efficient killing machine. This was a time of great unrest in Scotland, with the supporters of the exiled Mary, Queen of Scots being hunted down by those loyal to King James VI. James Douglas, the 4th Earl of Morton, accepted the challenge. The aristocrat, who was serving as the regent of Scotland, stepped forward with his Maiden, an early type of guillotine designed to slice off a person’s head in a single swift stroke.

It was perhaps fitting then, that, when Morton was arrested in 1580 and charged with being an accessory to murder, he was condemned to be killed by the very execution device he introduced into Scotland. Morton would have been impressed. According to eyewitness accounts, his death was instantaneous. His body was buried in an unmarked grave in the center of Edinburgh. His head, however, was put on a spike at the city gates and it stayed there for 18 months until it was taken down and buried alongside the rest of his remains.

20 Inventors Killed by their Own Inventions
Otto Lilienthal drew huge crowds as he attempted to fly further and further. Vimeo.

5. Otto Lilienthal was known as the ‘Flying Man’, but the plane he invented brought him back down to earth with a deadly bang

Germany’s Otto Lilienthal became known as the ‘Flying Man’. And for good reason. Born in 1848, he grew up to become a true aviation pioneer. He studied the wings of a white stork, making painstakingly accurate blueprints for his very own glider. He even built his own artificial hill on the outskirts of Berlin. From here, he launched himself into the air using his own prototype glider in 1891. His first flight was a huge success. So much so, in fact, that he went on to carry out more than 2,000 successful flights. Unsurprisingly, the ‘flying man’ made headlines across Europe, especially when he flew for a record-breaking distance of 250 metres in 1893.

Given his experience, then, Lilienthal was relaxed when he took to the skies one sunny August day in 1896. He made several successful flights before trying again to break his own distance record. However, he fell from a height of around 15 metres, breaking his neck. Badly injured, he was taken to a hospital but died soon after. Famously, his last words were “sacrifices must be made“. His designs were used by the Wright Brothers and they credited the German with inspiring them to take to the skies themselves.

Check this Out Too: 23 Photos of the Wright Brothers’ Flights.

20 Inventors Killed by their Own Inventions
The Five Punishments of execution in China were as brutal as they were imaginative. Pinterest.

4. Li Si invented the ‘Five Punishments’ and when he was charged with treason, that’s the way he was killed

According to Stanford University scholar, Li Si was “one of the two or three most important figures in Chinese history”. He was Chancellor of the ancient country for four decades, serving under two different Emperors between 246BC and 208BC. His achievements were legion. Above all, Li Si is credited with pacifying China’s enemies. And one way he did this was by brutally surprising both internal and external enemies. The politician famously invented the ‘Five Punishments’ and, just as famously, Li Si himself was killed by this brutal method.

Li Si was arrested in 208BC and charged with conspiring to prevent Fusu from becoming the next Emperor. This was despite the fact that the recently-deceased Emperor Qin Shi Huang had named Fusu as his successor. Charged with treason, Li Si was sentenced to die by the Five Punishments – the method he himself had devised. To begin with, his face was tattooed. His nose was then cut off and he was further tortured, though whether his genitals were chopped off is open to debate. In the end, Li Si was sliced in half at the waist.

20 Inventors Killed by their Own Inventions
Horace Lawson Hunley pictured beside the early submarine he would die inside of. Mother Nature Network.

3. Horace Lawson Hunley invented a submarine to fight the Union in the American Civil War and died inside it

Submariners have long been credited with being the bravest of all seafarers. And this was especially true in the earliest days of underwater exploration. Horace Lawson Hunley was a true pioneer, inventing the very first combat submarine during the American Civil War. He named the vessel after himself and oversaw all the testing of the H.L. Hunley. It was far from plain sailing. In October of 1863, five Confederate soldiers recruited to man the first boat died when a passing boat caused waves that flooded in through some open hatched. Dismayed but not beaten, Hunley decided to put himself forward for future testing.

Hunley was one of a crew of 8 who died when the prototype submarine sank just days after that first accident. However, the submarine itself was recovered and, with the holes patched up, re-launched soon after. In 1864, history was made when the H.L. Hunley carried out the first successful sinking of an enemy vessel, the Union ship USS Housatonic. Even that success came at a price, however, with all the crew killed when the sub sank whilst returning from the mission. Despite the setbacks, Hunley is still remembered as a true naval warfare pioneer.

20 Inventors Killed by their Own Inventions
Karel Soucek and the barrel he wrongly hoped would keep him safe. Pinterest.

2. Karel Soucek thought the padded barrel he invented would protect him when he was dropped off a tall building – he was wrong

Working as a stuntman isn’t for the faint-hearted. But Karel Soucek was even braver – and perhaps even more foolhardy – than most of his fellow movie professionals. The Canadian fancied himself as an ingenious inventor as well as a daredevil. So, when he unveiled his shock-absorbent barrel and announced his intention of proving its worth by being pushed off the roof of the Houston Astrodome, huge crowds flocked to the Texan landmark to see Soucek in action. The plan was simple: he would climb into the barrel and then be pushed off the roof and fall into a water tank below. The special barrel would absorb the shock and Soucek would step out alive.

The stunt didn’t go to plan, however. Soucek was shut in his barrel and dropped from a height of 180 feet. Unfortunately, the barrel hit the rim of the tank before entering the water. Miraculously, Soucek survived the initial impact but died soon afterward. He was buried on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, the site of his greatest triumph. Despite his ignoble end, he is remembered as one of the last true daredevils.

20 Inventors Killed by their Own Inventions
Marie Curie was unaware of the dangers of working with radioactive material. Wikipedia.

1. Marie Curie won two Nobel Prizes but her research into radioactivity also killed her in the most painful way possible

The Polish physicist Marie Curie was famously the first female winner of a Nobel Prize. Moreover, she’s the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences, a remarkable accomplishment. However, her pioneering work came at a price. Curie’s biggest contribution to knowledge was her investigation into radioactivity. Above all, she is credited with discovering the radioactive elements of radium and polonium. She also found a way of isolating radium. Her experiments meant she was exposed to radioactive substances for prolonged periods of time.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the dangers of ionizing radiation were not yet known. So, when Curie began feeling sick in the 1920s, she carried on working as normal. Not only did she keep radioactive material in her personal desk, she even carried it around in her pockets. Curie died in 1934 at the age of just 66. Even in the end, she never linked her illness with her work. Today, with the dangers of radioactive material much better understood, the Nobel prize-winner’s research notebooks and even her personal cookbooks are kept in lead-line boxes and can only be consulted by scholars wearing proper protective equipment.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“35,000 Watch as Barrel Misses Water Tank.” LA Times, January 1985.

“This week in science history: Marie Curie dies.” Cosmos Magazine.

“Max Valier: International Space Hall of Fame.” New Mexico Museum of Space History.

“Thomas Midgley Jr.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.

“How Henry Winstanley became a hero in 1698.” The Guardian, November 2010.

“Demon Core: The Strange Death of Louis Slotin.” The New Yorker.

“Alexander Bogdanov: the forgotten pioneer of blood transfusion.” NCBI.

“James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton.” The National Galleries.

“About Otto Lilienthal.” The Otto Lilienthal Museum.

“16 inventors who were killed by their own inventions.” The Independent, December 2016.