While the Wright Brothers supposedly flew the first proper aircraft, the idea no doubt existed in some form since humans laid eyes on the birds and the butterflies. The desire to take to the skies must have simmered for millennia before inspiring more tangible possibilities in powerful thinkers like Leonardo Da Vinci, but perhaps what made Da Vinci a more successful thinker in the long run was to keep his ideas as just that; hypothetical notions. While the temptation must have been strong, there’s no evidence Da Vinci ever tested his “ornithopter” flying device. Had he, far fewer people might know his name today.
There’s something to be said about acknowledging the real world precariousness of your own wild imagination. All the same, we can’t help but be fascinated over people who apparently don’t. The mad inventor archetype lives a kind of functional insanity where only The Idea is master and his every waking moment is dedicated to the distant prospect of realizing it. That’s one kind of story on this list. There’s also the kind where new territories inadvertently invite self-sacrifice, or where fate simply decides to play a cruel, twisted joke.
Sometimes comic, sometimes unfortunate and sad, often both; here are ten stories of renaissance people who innovated their way directly into the annals of history.
9. Franz Reichert, The Flying Tailor
Skilled tailor Franz Reichert had a long feud with gravity. His initial battles were fought and won with crash test dummies, which fell softly from his fifth floor apartment using homemade parachute designs. But gravity soon got the better of this daring inventor. Reichert couldn’t understand why none of his later experiments succeeded like his first, so eventually he reasoned (or unreasoned) that his apartment was simply too close to the ground.
You see where this goes. Towards the end of his life Reichelt petitioned Parisian police authorities again and again for an opportunity to conduct his tests from the Eiffel Tower. They eventually allowed it, never considering that when Reichert showed up on test day, he might decide to replace the test dummy with a test person (himself). Friends and spectators pleaded for him to reconsider, but Reichelt’s mind, suicidal in a roundabout sort of way, was made up. The parachute never opened. From the the Tower’s first platform, gravity won the war.
8. William Bullock
Bullock was a good man; an ambitious, hard-working mechanical type who liked to bury himself in books. His first invention, a shingle-cutting machine, got booted from the market place, but he went on to design a cotton press, a seed planter, a grain drill, and a pretty tight lathe for the mid-19th century.
His real legacy lies in his improvements on the printing press. Bullock’s magnum opus could continuously feed huge paper rolls through the printer without manual hand-feeding, which made things loads more efficient for the publishing industry. But one absolutely stupid day in April, 1867, Bullock kicked one of his printers and died. Not instantly — his leg got caught and crushed between some belts and pulleys, and attracted a fatal case of gangrene while doctors tried to amputate it days later.
7. Thomas Andrews
Thomas Andrews was last seen at 2:10 a.m. on April 15th 1912, admiring a painting in the RMS Titanic’s first-class smoking room. 10 minutes later, the unsinkable ship lay completely underwater. With the smoking room located precisely at the Titanic’s main fracture point, Andrews’ body had no hope of being recovered. Who was he? The naval architect who oversaw the ship’s construction.
6. Wan Hu
Pictured above: Humanity’s first astronaut. Whether man or myth, Wan Hu supposedly lived in China’s 16th century middle Ming Dynasty — a period of great innovations in fireworks and gunpowder. Rather than content himself with dazzling sights and sounds, Hu saw China’s rocket technology as the key to lunar transportation, and to this end, the nobleman had his servants fit a chair with forty-seven rockets. Long story short, he exploded. Of course.
5. Thomas Midgley, Jr.
Depending on who you ask, Midgley’s greatest contribution to humanity was ascertaining how to destroy the environment really well. His work on leaded gasoline and greenhouse gases have had lasting implications on industrial waste and by all accounts the man should have died of lead poisoning. He did everything short of guzzling leaded gasoline to prove its safety — including huffing it for a full minute and pouring it all over his hands — but somebody up there gave him a second chance, to which Midgley said “no thanks”. Years later he contrived a rope and pulley system for supporting himself when he was bed-confined with polio. On November 2nd, 1944, in the midst of puppeteering, he got tangled in the sinews of his machine and asphyxiated.
4. Jim Fixx
James “Jim” Fixx was one of America’s earliest fitness personalities. Thanks to his 1977 The Complete Book of Running, which ostensibly tells you how to run, America came to believe the secrets of health and/or immortality lay at your toe tips. That made it all the stranger when Fixx died of a heart attack at the young age of 52 in the middle of his daily marathon, proving once again that no one outruns the Reaper.
3. Max Valier
Austrian physicist Max Valier helped found the German Spaceflight Society that made great strides in 20th century space exploration. In the late 1920s he devoted his mechanical abilities to developing rocket car publicity stunts for German automobile company Opel. He put on some triumphant spectacles until May 1930, when one of his test rockets exploded him into rocketry martyrdom.
2. Marie Curie
The Polish-French scientist’s work in radioactivity — a word she coined — made her the first person and only woman to ever win two Nobel Prizes, as well as the first woman to win one at all. That only made her death by radiation exposure all the more caustic. Curie died in 1934 from bone marrow damage caused by, among other oversights, carrying test tubes of radium around in her pockets and serving plain-clothes in mobile X-ray units in World War I. Today, her groundbreaking papers from the 1890s, and even her personal cookbook, remain too contaminated to handle without protective clothing.
1. Valerian Abakovsky
In a perfect world we’d all ride the above contraption to work everyday. But ours is a dark, depressing totality where state-of-the-art railcars fitted with plane propellers only crash and burn. Young inventor Valerian Abakovsky believed the Aerowagon would bring class and speed to the travelling Soviet gentry; instead, in 1921, on its maiden return voyage to Moscow, it derailed and brought death to every communist on board, himself included.