With over 4 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you're throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or restoring the page for your old band from college that someone keeps deleting for being "not significant." But follow enough links, and you get sucked into some seriously strange places. We explore some of Wikipedia's oddities in our 4,267,004-week series, Wiki Wormhole.
This Week’s Entry: List of Inventors Killed By Their Own Inventions
What It’s About: For every triumph of human ingenuity, there are countless failures. Most go unnoticed; some even lead to eventual success; a special few failures are so spectacular they result in not only the death of an idea, but in the person who had the idea. Enterprising Wikipedia editors have compiled 24 such tales. Some involve successful inventions with unintended consequences—Marie Curie discovered radium, then died of radiation poisoning from working with the material; Fred Duesenberg invented the car that bore his name, then died crashing one of his own cars. Others were inventions that simply didn’t work—Franz Reichelt did his first (and last) test of the “coat parachute” by jumping off the Eiffel Tower. Reichelt told the authorities he was going to test the chute with a dummy, and, well, it would be cruel to say that’s exactly what he did. Accurate, but cruel.
Thanks to reader The Rapture Of Riddley Walker for suggesting this week’s topic.
Strangest Fact: Thomas Midgley Jr. suffered from polio, so he devised an elaborate system of pulleys to help lift himself out of bed. One day he accidentally got tangled in the ropes, which strangled him to death. The irony is that the invention was probably his least deadly—he also invented two major pollutants, tetaethyl lead, the gasoline additive used in the pre-unleaded days, and ozone-layer-destroying chlorofluorocarbons.
Controversy: There’s a lot of discussion as to what does and doesn’t belong in the category, and as a sop to those who want to broaden the scope, the page includes a few stories that are either unconfirmed or not strictly on-topic. One off-topic story is James Heslden, who didn’t invent the Segway, but bought the company that manufactured the transportation devices, and promptly died when he accidentally drove his Segway off a cliff. One unconfirmed story is that of Wan Hu, a 16th-century Chinese official who tried to launch himself into space by attaching 47 rockets to a chair. The rockets exploded, most likely vaporizing Wan.
Thing We Were Happiest To Learn: It’s hard to be too happy about inventors dying, but we can feel reasonably good about the death of Horace Lawson Hunley, who invented the first combat submarine—for the Confederate States Of America. The craft had already sunk twice when Hunley decided to personally command the sub for a trial. It submerged, never to re-emerge. The entire crew drowned before they ever got the chance to attack a Union ship.
Thing We Were Unhappiest To Learn: That there are only 24 entries. It seems like there are a wealth of killed-by-invention stories out there waiting to be told. Get on it, Wikipedia!
Also noteworthy: Henry Smolinski died in 1973 while testing the AVE Mizar, a flying car of his own invention. Perhaps the car’s failure had something to do with Smolinski basing it on the Ford Pinto, a legendary lemon whose gas tank had an unfortunate tendency to explode.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: List Of Unusual Deaths, a broader related category, which we’ll probably come back to sometime in the first hundred thousand weeks of our 4,267,004 part series.