5 Inventors Killed by Their Own Inventions

Published December 5, 2014
Updated January 8, 2018

Every new invention has a mysterious, risky air about it since, by definition, it is something that has never been done before. Testing new ground always involves a fair amount of danger: you never know if something works unless you test it, and sometimes you only get one shot.

Otto Lilienthal

As far as inventors go, Otto is among the most daring and badass. Lilienthal was a German pioneer of aviation, which necessarily inserted him into a very dangerous field where death was possible with every new flight. Even so, Lilienthal was not deterred, and he eventually earned the nickname Glider King for his numerous, well-documented flights using a variety of hang gliders.

During his career, Lilienthal took part in over 2,000 flights using gliders that he designed and built along with his brother. He is considered to be instrumental in popularizing the idea of human flight and making it seem like a viable option in the minds of the public. Even the Wright Brothers asserted that Lilienthal was a great inspiration for them.

Inventors Killed Otto Flight

Otto pushing the boundaries of human aviation, no big deal. Source: Wikipedia

Unfortunately, when you tempt death with every flight, your number will eventually come up. For Otto, this happened on August 9, 1896. His first few flight attempts were successful, and Lilienthal flew several hundred feet in a glider he built.

However, during his fourth flight, the front end of the glider pitched forward too much and basically plunged Lilienthal into a nosedive from which he could not recover. He fell from a distance of 50 feet. Lilienthal was transported to a hospital in Berlin, but died the next day. He did not express any regrets In fact, his last words were “Sacrifices must be made!”

Thomas Midgley Jr.

Midgley was a prolific inventor with an ambiguous legacy. On the one hand, during his time he was a respected chemist and engineer who had over 100 patents to his name. On the other, some of those inventions didn’t turn out so well for him or the world writ large. As one historian later remarked without hyperbole, Midgley “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.”

Thomas Midgley Jr.

The face of accidental evil Source: Y Timg

Nowadays Midgley is better remembered for the catastrophic effect his work has had on the environment. He achieved this dubious distinction by coming up with a gasoline additive called Tetraethyllead (TEL) that prevented engine knocking.

In essence, he created lead gasoline, one of the biggest polluters in the world. Midgley later padded his resume by working on a new refrigerant. He eventually came up with the first chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), also known as Freon, also known as that one thing that helped create gaping holes in the ozone layer.

Inventors Killed Midgely Ticker

“Just checking how much I screwed up the planet” Source: Descopera

Bizarrely enough, Midgley’s demise had nothing to do with any of these. By his early 50s, Midgley had been struck with polio and was confined to a bed. In order to make things easier for him, he invented a pulley system to get him in and out of bed. Unfortunately, one day the pulleys didn’t work properly and he became entangled in the ropes. Midgley tried to get out but was eventually strangled by his own invention.

Radu Alexander
Radu is a freelance writer who specializes in historical, scientific and offbeat topics.
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