Wiki Walks: A Haunting List of Inventors Killed by Their Own Creations

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 10 2013 12:19 PM

Wiki Walks: A Haunting List of Inventors Killed by Their Own Creations

Marie Curie, victim of her own genius

Photo from public domain via Wikipedia

Welcome to the first installment of Future Tense’s new Wiki Walk series. Our goal: to find the most surprising, engrossing, and entertaining entries and lists on the people-powered repository of knowledge—the kind that are destined to send you on a long, invigorating wiki walk. If you have a favorite Wikipedia entry, tweet it to @FutureTenseNow or leave it in the comments.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

The men and woman on this Wikipedia list each range from would-be recipients of the Darwin Awards—given to those who take themselves out of the gene pool by graciously dying at the hands of their own stupidity—to actual winners of the Nobel Prize. They are the inventors killed by their own creations. But every death by invention comes with its own special flavor.


Just desserts:

James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton (1581) was executed in Edinburgh on the Scottish Maiden which he had introduced to Scotland as Regent.

Sort of stupid, sort of admirable:

Alexander Bogdanov (22 August 1873—7 April 1928) was a Russian physician, philosopher, science fiction writer and revolutionary of Belarusian ethnicity who started blood transfusion experiments, apparently hoping to achieve eternal youth or at least partial rejuvenation. He died after he took the blood of a student suffering from malaria and tuberculosis, possibly due to blood type incompatibility.

Failure to respect the scientific method:

Franz Reichelt (1879–1912), a tailor, fell to his death off the first deck of the Eiffel Tower while testing his invention, the coat parachute. It was his first ever attempt with the parachute and he had told the authorities in advance that he would test it first with a dummy.

Hindsight is 20/20:

Henry Smolinski (died 1973) was killed during a test flight of the AVE Mizar, a flying car based on the Ford Pinto and the sole product of the company he founded.

If only he knew in 1973 what we know now about the Pinto.

OK, this is just sad:

Thomas Midgley, Jr. (1889–1944) was an American engineer and chemist who contracted polio at age 51, leaving him severely disabled. He devised an elaborate system of strings and pulleys to help others lift him from bed. This system was the eventual cause of his death when he was accidentally entangled in the ropes of this device and died of strangulation at the age of 55.

Another science gender gap:

The sole woman on the list is Marie Curie, who discovered radium before dying of radiation poisoning, and who was the first female recipient of the Nobel Prize. (Lauren Redniss’ 2010 graphic novel Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout tells the story beautifully.) But her inclusion was controversial: The Talk page for the Wikipedia entry shows vigorous debate over whether her discovery of radium should be considered an invention—she has been removed and reinserted several times since 2007.

Indeed, the talk page is filled with glorious hair-splitting over what counts as an “invention” and when a death can be attributed to one. In 2011, one Wikipedian argued that the entire article should be renamed, writing: “If a man creates a robot that then kills him then certainly he has been killed by his invention, but if he creates a motorbike and falls or unsuccessfully deploys his parachute after jumping then he is killed by gravity, incompetence etc.”

The page busts one popular myth: The inventor of the Segway was not, in fact, killed after driving his Segway off a cliff. The man who suffered that undignified end was the owner of Segway Inc., not the creator of Gob Bluth’s favored mode of transportation

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.


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