Invention Killed the Inventor

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…

10 Travel Innovations That Made the Modern World Possible

Where would we be without the horse, the compass, or the steam engine? Probably right where we started, since we couldn’t go anywhere. These 10 innovations have delivered us from prehistory into today’s global village. For more on these game-changing developments, tune in to National Geographic’s Origins, airing Mondays, 9/8 CST.

In the grand scheme of things, our relationship with the horse is a relatively young one. The exact dates are hard to pin down, but experts believe the first horses were likely domesticated sometime between 4000 and 6000 years ago in northern Kazakhstan. Their arrival revolutionized almost every aspect of human life, from hunting and farming to warfare and exploration. At the time, they were also considered pretty good eating.


We think of the wheel as the most basic of inventions, yet human society had progressed quite a way before the concept occurred to us. We were making sailboats, metal alloys, and musical instruments in the Bronze Age before we had the technology to craft a symmetrical, smooth axle and pair of wheels. Once we did, though, there was no stopping us; some historians say the idea was likely only invented once but quickly spread throughout the inhabited world.


The first compasses were used not for navigation, but for divination as Chinese prognosticators in the 2nd century BCE used “south-pointers” to identify ideal locations for rituals. Later, Chinese inventors recognized the navigational value of a north-pointing needle. By the year 1000 CE, compass-wielding Chinese sailors could travel all the way to Saudi Arabia without getting lost.

With a fearless attitude and a few pieces of flexible wood, the Vikings conquered the world. Their longboats were an incredibly elegant improvement on existing ships. They were shallow-bottomed and lightweight, which allowed them to sail…