The desire to innovate and change the world can drive one to take dangerous risks. Sometimes, inventors pay the ultimate price. Inventors can be early testers of a device under development, and sometimes pushing the limits of what’s possible has deadly consequences. In this era of warning labels on coffee cups, it’s perhaps worth taking a look back at some inventors of the past who lost their lives in the pursuit of building something new.
First Aviation Fatality
Jean-Francoise Pilatre de Rozier was an early aviation pioneer, as well as a chemistry and physics teacher. He and Marquis d’Arlandes made the first manned free balloon flight in 1783. De Rozier is known for testing the flammability of hydrogen by “gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one’s face.” (Bill Bryson, in “A Short History of Nearly Everything”) He may have had a slightly cavalier approach to on-the-job safety.
But it was ballooning that would get him. After several successful flights, he and his companion Pierre Romain attempted to cross the English channel on June 15th, 1785, but the balloon suddenly deflated, and they fell from an estimated altitude of 450 m. Both pioneers were killed in the crash.
The Glider King
The first well-documented and successful heavier-than-air flights were made by German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal. He constructed eighteen types of gliders and took over 2,000 glider flights. He also developed a dozen models of monoplanes, flapping-wing aircraft, and two biplanes. Wilbur Wright called him “easily the most important” of the early airplane pioneers.
His final flight, on August 9th, 1896, was otherwise quite normal. His glider design had a problem with pitching nose-first, because after a certain angle the pilot just couldn’t shift their weight any further backwards to counteract it. Lilienthal lost control in a nose dive, falling from a height of about 15 m, and fractured his spine. He was taken to the hospital, but died about 36 hours after the crash. His last words where “Opfer müssen gebracht werden!” (Sacrifices must be made!).
Dangers of the Atom
It is hard to underestimate the achievements of Marie Curie. She remains the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences: in physics, for her work on radiation phenomena, and in chemistry, for the discovery of the elements radium and polonium. All of this took place during a time when women were discouraged or outright forbidden from doing academic science.
Her work with those radioactive elements was the cause of her death, since the dangers of ionizing radiation were not known at the time. She use to carry the test tubes with radioactive material in her pockets, without any safety measures. Even today, her papers and even her cookbook are stored in shielded boxes because they are still highly radioactive. Much of the money from the Nobel prize, as well as other monetary gifts she received, was given to friends and family and donated for research. Albert Einstein used to say that she was probably the only person who could not be corrupted by fame. Marie died from aplastic anemia caused by the long term radiation exposure on July 4th, 1934.
Horace Lawson Hunley was a lawyer and a member of the Louisiana state legislature who developed early hand-powered submarines. Hunley understood how important the shipping trade with Europe was for the Confederacy, so he partnered with James McClintock and Baxter Watson to create an underwater vessel that would help keep the vital shipping lanes with Europe open. Three different models were designed and built. Unfortunately, the third submarine sank, killing all eight crew members, including Hunley.
The vessel was recovered by the Confederacy, and on February 17th, 1864 it became the first successful combat submarine, sinking the USS Housatonic. The HL Hunley, as it was named, mysteriously disappeared after that mission, to be found over a century later in 1995. The crew received a proper burial only in 2004.
Walking on Unknown Ground
Pushing out boundaries is the essence of science and invention. We don’t know enough about de Rozier’s death to say whether his devil-may-care attitude was responsible for his death — ballooning was in its infancy and is quite dependant on the wind — but it could have been. Lilienthal made over 2,000 similar flights before bad luck fatally caught up with him. Marie Curie, and the rest of science at the time, just didn’t know that radioactivity was dangerous. Hunley had no choice but to test out his submarine himself. All of them paid for their inventions with their lives.
We’re not saying that you shouldn’t wear glasses and hearing protection when operating an angle grinder. You should absolutely take every reasonable safety precaution that you can. Most of us will never get near enough to the boundaries of the unknown that we’d need to take a leap like Lilienthal, much less do so thousands of times. Still, there’s a certain tragic nobility to these stories that underscores the strength of the desire to innovate, to be first, or to find something new.