Horace Lawson Hunley – Submarine Developer
On the eve of the Civil War, Horace Lawson Hunley was a state Congressman and practicing lawyer in New Orleans. But when war broke out in 1861, he joined the southern cause, becoming a naval engineer for the Confederate army. Hunley developed a hand-powered submarine and, as you'd expect from any 19th century underwater vehicle, it was a deathtrap. An early test killed five crewmembers when it was destabilized by the wake of a passing ship. A second crew tested the sub in October 1863 with a similarly disastrous outcome. The ship sank and all eight crewmembers died, including Hunley. His invention made history after his death however, becoming the first submarine to sink a warship when it torpedoed the USS Housatonic, a Union ship that was part of the blockade of Charleston. The ship sank and five crewmembers of the Housatonic died. But after the attack, the submarine also sank, killing the entire crew. In the end, Hunley’s sub killed five Union soldiers and 21 Confederate soldiers, so its unclear which side he really helped in the end.
Marie Curie – Physicist and Chemist
Looking for a new feminist heroine? For your consideration, I present Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win two Nobel Prizes, and the only person to ever win the award in multiple sciences (as a stick figure Curie points out in this web comic, there are plenty of other great options as well). Her long list of scientific achievements includes developing the theory of radioactivity, discovering two new elements (polonium and radium), and conducting the first studies into treating tumors with radioactive isotopes. Sadly, Curie died in 1934 due to exposure to radiation from test tubes of radium she would carry in her pocket and exposure to X-rays at the mobile radiography units she established during World War I.
William Bullock – Printing Press Innovator
William Bullock helped revolutionize the printing industry with improvements he made to the printing press in the 19th century. His web rotary press automatically fed paper into the machine, printed on both sides, folded the paper, and cut sheets with a high degree of precision. His enhancements provided the printing industry with much needed speed and efficiency. Unfortunately, his foot was crushed in the printing press he created and he developed gangrene. Bullock died in April 1867 during the amputation of his infected foot.
James Douglas – Inventor of Early Guillotine
Douglas was one of the four regents of Scotland in the 16th century and inventor of the Maiden, an early iteration of the Guillotine. The Maiden was used in Edinburgh as a method of execution until the 18th century. Ironically, Douglas was a victim of his own invention when he was executed for murder in 1581. Being that he lived in 16th century Scotland, his Wikipedia page is extremely entertaining, filled with names straight out of Game of Thrones like Cambuskenneth, Greyfriars Kirkyard, Halifax gibbet, Holyrood Palace, and Erskine of Gogar.
Valerian Abakovsky – Railcar Developer
Abakovsky was a Russian inventor who developed the Aerocar, a high-speed railcar fitted with a plane engine and propeller. It was intended to carry Soviet officials too and from Moscow. Its first trip was successful, bringing a group of six from Tula to Moscow. On its return trip however, the aerocar derailed, killing all those on board including Abakovsky and Fyodor Sergeyev, a famed communist revolutionary.
Alexander Bogdanov – Medical Innovator
Bogdanov was a Soviet physician, economist, sci-fi writer, and revolutionary Marxist. He also thought he could attain eternal youth through blood transfusions. He began to experiment with the health benefits of blood transfusions in the early 1920s, encouraged by their beneficial health effects. This experimentation would cost him his life however, when he used blood tainted with malaria and tuberculosis. Some also speculate that blood type incompatibility led to his demise.
Karel Soucek – Stuntman
This Czech-Canadian daredevil made a name for himself by floating over Niagra Falls in a barrel. He survived the 1000-foot fall by using a shock absorbent barrel he invented and built. Afterwards, he decided to build a museum as a monument to his daring feat. To finance its construction, Soucek planed another bold exploit. This time, he would role off the top of the Houston Astrodome in his famed barrel and land in a tank of water to soften his fall. The stunt didn’t go as planned, and the barrel struck the rim of the tank, killing Soucek.
Most People Who Tried To Fly
If there’s one thing we can learn from the history of inventors, it’s that flying is a very dangerous venture. Like Icarus, most who try fall to their death. Here are some of the inventors who died in the pursuit of flight:
Ismail Ibn Hammad al-Jawhari – Al-Jawhari was the author of a famous Arabic dictionary who died after jumping off the roof a mosque with two wooden wings attached to his arms.
Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier – One of the earliest pioneers of aviation, he fell to his death while attempting to cross the English Channel in a balloon he invented.
Otto Lilienthal – Known as “the Glider King,” Lilienthal broke his neck while flying one of his own hang gliders. His final words were, “small sacrifices must be made!”
Franz Reichelt – This French tailor wanted to invent a suit that could turn into a parachute for aviators, in case they had to jump out of their aircraft. He died after a test jump off the Eiffel Tower.
Aurel Vlaicu – This Romanian inventor died after crashing one of his three self-constructed powered airplanes in the Carpathian Mountains.
Henry Smolinski – Like everyone in 1960s America, Smolinksi saw a future full of flying cars. His vision for the future never came to fruition however, after he died while testing his AVE Mizar, a flying car modeled after the Ford Pinto.
Michael Dacre – Dacre wanted to provide fast, affordable transportation between cities by creating flying taxi. He died during a test flight of his own creation.