They Dreamed The Impossible Dream
And Met Their Maker During the Process
I am fascinated by people like Franz Reichelt, people who will not relent, are fearless and undaunted in pursuit of their dreams, even if it means they will die in the process. I respect the man who tries and fails so much more than the man who succeeds without great sacrifice. The world is full of these self-serving windbags who set their sights low in order to guarantee they won’t fail, men whose brag about their empty achievements, compared with he who risks it all, with unquestioned resolve and finds a life that is full and meaningful, brief though it may be. I would guess that I am so drawn to such heroic men because I am not heroic, I believe that if faced with a life and death situation I would, in the famous words of Monte Python, “run away, run away.”
For those unfamiliar with the name, Franz Reichelt was born On Oct. 6, 1878, in Wegstadtl in the kingdom of Bohemia. He died on Feb. 4, 1912, at the ripe young age of 33, when he jumped off the Eiffel Tower, testing his wearable parachute design. Before the leap into the annals of legendary bravery that some would call stupidity, the implacable inventor conducted experimental drops with dummies fitted with his invention. None of the tests succeeded but Reichelt would not be denied by anything as unfeeling as logic.
Before his great leap of faith, Reichelt told La Figaro “Je veux tenter l’expérience moi-même et sans chiqué, car je tiens à bien prouver la valeur de mon invention.” Translated he said he wanted “to try the experiment myself and without trickery, as I intend to prove the worth of my invention.”
On the fateful day, he arrived at the famed tower at 7 a.m., already wearing his creation, an outfit that resembled “a sort of cloak fitted with a vast hood of silk.” He was calm and smiling when he jumped but his parachute seemed to only half-open, folded around him almost immediately and he fell for a few seconds before striking the frozen soil at the foot of the tower. Reichelt’s right leg and arm were crushed, his skull and spine broken, and he was bleeding from his mouth, nose and ears. But at least he tried.
Reichelt was perhaps the most famous inventor to be killed by his own invention. But there were many others, who were equally steadfast, or if you choose, senseless, ill-advised, half-baked, half-witted or otherwise dopey. But they were not boring.
Luis Alfonso Jiménez Jr. was an American sculptor known for portraying dramatic Hispanic-American themes. His large polychromed, bright, colorful fiberglass sculptures have been displayed at the Smithsonian and at Denver International Airport.
He created heroic sculptures that championed the common man and Jimenez worked under challenges that would defeat most people. As a child, his left eye was shot by a BB gun and he developed lifetime migraines. As a young adult teaching art at junior high school, he was temporarily paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident. In his later years, he had a heart attack and required hand surgery.
But he kept sculpting, until June 13, 2006. He was 65 and working in his studio in Hondo, N.M., when was killed when a large section of his 32-foot-high work Blue Mustang loosened from a hoist and fatally severed an artery in his leg.
Thomas Midgley Jr., was an American engineer and chemist who was awarded more than 100 patents. He played a major role in developing leaded gasoline and some of the first chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), better known as Freon. Both products were later proven to be environmental nightmares and were later banned from common use because of their severe negative impact on human health and the environment. Midgley was once called a “one-man environmental disaster” but he kept on keeping on.
Midgeley’s father was an inventor in the field of automobile tires and his maternal grandfather, James Emerson, invented the “inserted tooth saw.”
Midgley came down with polio when he was 51 and he invented a system of strings and pulleys to make it easier for others to lift him out of bed. Unfortunately, four years later, Midgley was 55 when he became entangled in the ropes of his invention and was strangled to death.
Sylvester H. Roper invented the steam-powered bicycle, the Roper steam velocipede of 1867–1869, that is considered the first motorcycle. He also invented the shotgun choke and a revolver repeating shotgun.
But the maker of the velocipede met his own maker on June 1, 1896. Roper was racing on a later velocipede test model on the Charles River bicycle track in Cambridge, Mass. He left a professional bicycle rider in his dust and was clocked at a top speed of 40 mph when the vehicle crashed, splitting his head open and causing a subsequent fatal heart attack.
Many years before the Wright Brothers, Ismail ibn Hammad al-Jawhari, a Kazakh Turkic scholar from Farab, concocted a flying device made of two wooden wings and a rope. The fated contraption failed and al-Jawhari was killed after he jumped off the roof of a mosque and was killed sometime between 1003 and 1010. Al-Jawhari was apparently inspired by a glider flight by the Berber inventor, Abbas Ibn Firnas, or al-Jawhari may just have thought he was a bird. Firnas was not much better. He tried to fly when he covered himself with feathers, attached wings to his body and flung himself off a roof, not flying but seriously hurting his back.
Aerospace engineers Henry Smolinski and Harold “Hal” Blake should have listened to their detractors and paid more attention to history, but then that wouldn’t have been Henry Smolinski and Hal Blake. Smolinski and Blake invented a flying car in 1971, called the AVE Mizar, attaching wings to the chassis of a Ford Pinto, a car model which was later infamous for catching fire when hit in the rear. A prototype got off the ground, briefly, when the wing began to detach on the right side, forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing in a nearby bean field. The National Transportation Safety Board investigated and deemed the auto-plane poorly designed, its airframe overburdened
Blake and Smolinski were undaunted, made some revisions to flight and then took it to the air on Sept. 11, 1973, when it crashed after two minutes, killing Blake and Smolinski and their plan for a flying Pinto.
Some might say that the talented Soviet scientist, Andrei Zheleznyakov, got what was coming to him. He was developing chemical weapons in 1987 when a hood malfunctioned and exposed him to traces of the nerve agent Novichok 5. He would never walk again and eventually the nerve gas killed him in 1992.
Another ill-fated but heroic inventor was William Bullock, inventor of the web rotary printing press. Too bad for Bullock, but several years after the invention, his foot was crushed during the installation of a new machine in Philadelphia. Bullock developed gangrene and died during the amputation of his foot 1867.
Horace Lawson Hunley was a Confederate inventor, who had devised the first combat submarine, later named the H.L. Hunley. Unfortunately, for Hunley and his seven crew members, during a test, the submarine sank, and could not resurface and killed all on board in 1973.
Thomas Andrews Jr. was an Irish-born British businessman and shipbuilder who was the naval architect in charge of the plans for the ocean liner RMS Titanic. He was on the unsinkable Titanic during her maiden voyage when the ship hit an iceberg on April 14, 1912, killing Andrews and more than 1,500 others. But as with the other inventor brethren, at least Andrews tried.