12. Sylvester H. Roper felt the need for speed – and ended up dying after crashing the steam-powered bicycle he invented
While he may not be a household name, among bikers, Sylvester H. Roper is something of a legend. Not only did the American engineer invent what’s widely regarded as the world’s first motorbike, he was also brave (or maybe foolish) enough to get in the saddle and test it out himself. Roper worked out of his workshop in Boston. In 1868, the unveiled the ‘steam velocipede, which was essentially a normal pushbike with a steam engine attached to it. Keen to show off his new machine, the inventor was a regular at the bike track down by the Charles River. And it was here he met his end.
One summer’s day in 1896, Roper took his early motorbike down to the river. He rode the course for three laps, speeding past some of the best young cyclists from nearby Harvard University. According to observers, he reached speeds of up to 40kmph. Then, on the fourth lap, he wobbled and fell, smashing his head on the hard track. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Even though a later autopsy revealed that he died of heart failure, Roper is widely seen as a victim of his own love of speed. The inventor was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.
11. Louis Slotin helped invent the atomic bomb and was then killed in a radiation accident at Los Alamos
Louis Alexander Slotin was one of the brightest minds of his generation. Born in 1910, he left his native Canada to study for a doctorate in chemistry in London. After that, he worked as a research associate in Chicago before he was invited to join the top-secret team working to develop an atomic bomb. Slotin was a key member of the Manhattan Project. His work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory focused on determining the critical mass values of uranium and plutonium. It was a subject that fascinated him. But the very pioneering research he was working on would end up killing him.
In May of 1946, Slotin was working in his lab when he had an accident. A slip of the hand accidentally set off a fission reaction. A hard burst of radiation was emitted – and hit Slotin full-on. According to the legend, Slotin threw himself over the radioactive material, shielding his colleagues and possibly saving their lives. As an expert in his field, he would have realized that he had been exposed to a fatal dose. Sure enough, his condition rapidly deteriorated and he died less than two weeks later.
10. Henry Winstanley built an ‘impossible’ lighthouse and stayed in it when the biggest storm in history hit the English shore
When Englishman Henry Winstanley lost a second ship on the Eddystone rocks, a dangerous outcrop located at the very southern tip of Britain, he decided something needed to be done. Prior to becoming an international merchant and shipowner, Winstanley was an engineer. And so he put his training to good use by designing a lighthouse. While many warned him that the rocks were too inaccessible and that any attempts to build on them would be deadly, he went ahead with his plans. Work on the first Eddystone Lighthouse began in July of 1696 and the project was finished three years later.
At first, it looked like the lighthouse would work. However, Winstanley soon realized that, in a heavy storm, the waves and sea spray would rise so high off the rocks that they would obscure the light. He decided his lighthouse needed to be rebuilt, and this time made even bigger. The larger lighthouse proved even more successful. In fact, for the next five years, not a single ship was lost on the Eddystone rocks. So confident was Winstanley in his construction that he declared his wish to be inside his lighthouse when “the greatest storm there ever was” hit England. In 1703, the so-called Great Storm hit. The lighthouse was destroyed completely, with Winstanley and five other men inside. All were lost to sea, their bodies never recovered.
9. You Ismail ibn Hammad al-Jawhari believed the wings he invented would let him fly like a bird – they didn’t
Ismail ibn Hammad al-Jawhari was a Renaissance man before the Renaissance had even started. Born at the end of the 10th century in the city of Farab, in modern-day Kazakhstan, he went to Baghdad as a young man to study the Arabic language. While he was there, however, he also became fascinated with flight. According to the legends that have grown up surrounding his life and death, he believed he could master the art of flying like a bird. He devised a prototype glider, modeling it on a bird’s wings, and then set about proving that it worked.
It’s believed that al-Jawhari made his first – and last – flight attempt in the city of Nishapur in the year 1008. It’s said he took his homemade wings onto the top of a mosque and jumped. Some contemporary accounts claim that, by the time he came to jump, the inventor had become delusional, even to the extent that he believed he was a bird. It’s far more likely, however, that al-Jawhari was sane and rational and was just one of many early flight pioneers. Indeed, it may well be that he was inspired by the attempts at gliding carried out by Abbas Ibn Firnas in Arabic Andalusia or even by the supposed 11th-century ‘flight’ by the English monk Eilmer of Malmesbury.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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