5 Inventors Killed by Their Own Inventions

5 Inventors Killed by Their Own Inventions

1. Sylvester H. Roper

Sylvester H. Roper (November 24, 1823 – June 1, 1896) was an American inventor known for producing early motorcycles. He died on 1 June 1896 doing what he loved –– he took one of his early motorcycles on a fast ride, lost balance and fell, and succumbed to the injuries.

Roper was born on 24 November 1823 in Francestown, New Hampshire, to Susan Fairbanks and Merrick Roper, a cabinetmaker. Roper displayed mechanical talent from an early age. By the age of 12, he had made a stationary steam engine, even though he had never seen one before in person. At age 14, he built a locomotive engine and only afterward saw such an engine for the first time in Nashua.

Roper left Francestown at a young age and worked as a mechanic/machinist, first in Nashua, New Hampshire, then in Manchester, New York, and in Worcester, Massachusetts, eventually settling in Boston, Massachusetts, where he maintained an automobile workshop. In 1861, he invented a hot air engine and filed several patents for hot air engines. He later built engines ranging from 1 to 4 HP. In 1869, over 200 of his air engines were in operation. Sometime between 1867-1869, he produced a steam-powered velocipede which was named Roper steam velocipede. It is one of the first three machines to be called a motorcycle, along with the Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede, also dated 1867–1869, and the 1885 Daimler Reitwagen. 


On June 1, 1896, Roper rode one of his later Roper steam velocipede models to the Charles River bicycle track, near Harvard Bridge, Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was able to get to the top speed of 40 mph, a feat at the time. After the first few successful laps, he wobbled and fell, smashing his head on the hard track. He was pronounced dead at the scene. The autopsy revealed the cause of death to be heart failure, although it is unknown if the crash was the cause of the stress on his heart, or if his heart failed before the crash.

2. Thomas Midgley Jr. 

Thomas Midgley Jr. (May 18, 1889 – November 2, 1944) was an American mechanical and chemical engineer who played a major role in developing leaded gasoline (Tetraethyllead) and some of the first chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The products were later banned due to concerns about their impact on human health and the environment. 

Over the course of his career, Midgley was granted more than 100 patents.


In 1940, aged 51, Midgley contracted polio and was left severely disabled. He devised an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys to lift himself out of bed. Four years later, in 1944, he accidentally got entangled in the device and died of strangulation at the age of 55. (A Short History of Nearly Everything 2004 by Bill Bryson)

3. William Bullock

William Bullock (1813 – April 12, 1867) was an American inventor known for improving Richard March Hoe's rotary printing press, which helped revolutionize the printing industry due to its great speed and efficiency.

Bullock was born in 1813 in Greenville, New York. He was raised by his brother after his father died in 1821. Growing up, he worked with his brother as a machinist and iron-founder and by age 21, he had his own machinery workshop in Savannah, Georgia. While in Georgia, Bullock invented the shingle-cutting machine, but his business failed when he was unable to market it.

In the early 1950s, Bullock moved to Catskill, New York, where he began working on a hand-turned wooden printing press that had a self-feeder. Later, he moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and began improvising on the rotary press which was originally invented by Richard March Hoe in 1843. 

Bullock's improvements on the rotary press allowed for continuous large rolls of paper to be automatically fed through the rollers, eliminating the laborious hand-feeding system of earlier presses. He was able to print up to 12,000 sheets an hour; later improvements raised the speed to up to 30,000 sheets an hour.


A few years later, on April 3, 1867, while working on a new machine for the Philadelphia Public Ledger newspaper, Bullock tried to kick a driving belt onto a pulley. Unfortunately, his right leg was crushed when it was caught in the machine. The foot developed gangrene and he died on April 12, 1867, during an operation to amputate the limb.

4. Otto Lilienthal

Otto Lilienthal (23 May 1848 – 10 August 1896) was a German aviation pioneer. Known as the "flying man", he was the first person to make well-documented, repeated, successful flights with gliders. In August 1896, his glider stalled and he fell from about 15 meters and died.

Lilienthal was born on 23 May 1848 in Anklam, Germany. He attended a grammar school in Anklam, where he studied the flight of birds. Renowned German astronomer Gustav Spörer was his mathematics teacher at the school. After the school, in 1864-1866, he attended Regional Technical School in Potsdam. He then received practical training in mechanical engineering at the Schwartzkopff Company in Berlin, after which he attended Royal Technical Academy in Berlin in the years 1867-1870. Around the same time he began conducting his flight experiments. 

During his short flying career, Lilienthal developed a dozen models of monoplanes, wing-flapping aircraft, and two biplanes. He made his flights from an artificial hill he built near Berlin and from natural hills, especially in the Rhinow region. 


On 9 August 1896, Lilienthal went to the Rhinow Hills to conduct flight experiments. After successful initial attempts, his glider stalled during the fourth attempt. He was unable to control the glider and as a result, fell from a height of about 15 meters, while still in the glider. He was admitted to the clinic of Ernst von Bergmann, one of the most famous and successful surgeons in Europe at the time. Unfortunately, Lilienthal succumbed to the injuries on 10 August 1896.

5. Francis Edgar Stanley

Francis Edgar Stanley (June 1, 1849 – July 13, 1918) was an American businessman who co-founded Stanley Motor Carriage Company with his twin brother Freelan Oscar Stanley. The firm built the Stanley Steamer.

The brothers were born on 1 June 1849 in Kingfield, Maine, to Solomon P. Stanley II (1813–89) and Apphia Kezar Stanley (1819-74). They showed creative and entrepreneurial inclination at a young age –– in 1859, At the age of nine, the two started their first business together refining and selling maple sugar. At the age of 12, Francis learned to carve violins from his grandfather. In 1874, at the age of 24, Francis opened a photography studio in Lewiston, Maine. The studio was a success and his brother, Freelan, eventually joined his business. 

Later, they got interested in the automobile business. After selling their photographic dry plate business to Eastman-Kodak, they made their first car in 1897. In the following two years, they produced and sold 200 cars, more than any other U.S. maker (Early and Vintage, 1886–1930 by G.N. Georgano).


On 13 July 1998, Francis drove his car into a woodpile while attempting to avoid farm wagons traveling side by side on the road, in Wenham, Massachusetts. He died as a result. 

William A. Bullock, Inventor
Short Biography Of Otto Lilienthal
"Died in the Saddle", Boston Daily Globe, p. 1, 2 June 1896
G.N. Georgano Cars: Early and Vintage, 1886–1930. (London: Grange-Universal, 1985).
A Short History of Nearly Everything 2004, by Bill Bryson
Pittsburgh World Firsts: By Event
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