Fathers (and mothers) of invention: ultimate victims of their own success

Robert Atkins, an adherent to his own high-protein, low carbohydrate diet, was 18 stone when he died, it has emerged. His wife blames medical problems unrelated to the controversial eating regime. But others suggest that his invention contributed to his demise. And history, it seems, is littered with pioneers who were victims of their own success...
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Hal Blake and Henry Smolinski, Inventors of the 'Flying Car', Died 1973

The two American engineers had a dream: to produce the world's first hybrid flying car.

They set up Advanced Vehicle Engineers in 1971 in the Californian town of Van Nuys to turn their blueprint into reality by combining the cabin and flying controls of a small Cessna with a Ford Pinto, a popular hatchback at the time produced in a range of oranges and yellows.

The idea was simple. By bolting the wings from the Cessna above the car roof, the owners of the vehicle - given the name Mizar - would be able to fly to their airport of choice before detaching the wings and driving to their final destination. Promotional material boasted how commuting times could be slashed and the modern holidaymaker or businessman would never again need the services of a hire car agency.

The prototype plane-car received so much publicity that Galpin Ford, of Sepulveda, California, a large dealer, signed a deal to distribute the new product.

Just as their two years of development and hard labour looked to be paying off, Smolinski and Blake climbed aboard a Mizar and rolled down the runway at Van Nuys, between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

As it lofted into the air, the Advanced Vehicle Engineers found themselves flying a wingless Ford Pinto, as the plane and automobile elements became divorced and went spinning to the ground, killing both men.

A commercially-produced vehicle capable of both flying and driving is still yet to be unveiled.

Herr Teichelt, Inventor of the bat cape, Died 1911

The unfortunate Herr Teichelt, whose first name has gone unrecorded by history, was a German tailor who went to Paris to pursue his desire to combine his trade with the human desire to fly.

By the autumn of 1911 he had perfected a bat cape that he was sure would enable the wearer to swoop gently to the ground from a great height.

Teichelt applied to the management of the Eiffel Tower for permission to display his invention. They agreed, provided he obtained police authorisation and absolved them of any responsibility.

Teichelt selected a December morning for his inaugural flight and at about 8am climbed to the first floor, watched by well-wishers and press photographers.

He climbed over the parapet and plunged to his death, his fall in no way slowed by his "invention".

Jim Fixx, Founding father of jogging, 1932 - 1984

Mr Fixx made a career in the late 1970s and early 1980s preaching the virtues of running.

His 1977 best-seller, The Complete Book of Running, was credited with helping to start America's fitness revolution and he made regular television appearances extolling the virtues of donning a tracksuit and trainers and taking to the road.

Within months of the publication of his guide, America was awash with Fixx disciples adopting the jarring gait that he advocated as combining the best mixture of running for cardiovascular fitness and shaking the body to lose weight.

The craze spread to Europe and across the globe, introducing a generation to the phenomenon of jogging bottoms, training shoes and sweatbands.

Keen to capitalise upon his success, he published a second book three years later with the less than inspired title: Jim Fixx's Second Book of Running: The Companion Volume to The Complete Book of Running.

Mr Fixx explained how he jogged an average of 60 miles every week and was fortified by his philosophy that regular physical exercise would add significantly to the lifespan of the average human being.

Sadly for the pioneering fitness freak, the words did not apply to their author. On 20 July 1984, he was visiting the town of Greensboro in Vermont, in the north-east of the United States, and decided to go for his daily run from the house where he was staying.

Mr Fixx had only gone a short distance when he collapsed and died from a massive heart attack, aged just 52. He was, of course, running at the time.

A post-mortem examination found that the entrepreneur may have been better off devoting his energies to the area of healthy eating. Cholesterol was found to have blocked one of Mr Fixx's coronary arteries completely, 80 per cent of a second and 70 per cent of a third.

Guillaume de Harancourt, The Iron Cage, Died c. 1482

Following the penchant of medieval bishops to exercise political as well as spiritual power, De Harancourt, the Bishop of Verdun, dedicated himself to dynastic plotting and the physical torture of the souls in his care.

In order to increase the efficiency with which pain could be inflicted upon sinners, the sadistic bishop invented the Iron Cage - a wrought iron cube of such cramped dimensions that it was impossible for the individual imprisoned inside it to stand upright or lie at full length.

De Harancourt entered into a conspiracy with a French cardinal, Jean La Balue, to induce Louis XI to seek control of the regions of Champagne and Brie during a power struggle with the nobility, led by Charles the Bold.

The discovery of the clerical intrigue in April 1469 led to the arrest and imprisonment of the priests. De Harancourt became the first person to be locked in one of his iron cages. For 13 years he was unable to stand or sit. He died shortly after his release, crippled by his incarceration.

Name unknown, Inventor of the Catherine Wheel, Died November 310AD

As daytime entertainment goes, it was clearly designed for those with a penchant for the gruesome and an extra strong stomach. The Catherine Wheel, among the most unsavoury of medieval torture contraptions, frequently drew crowds of spectators.

Those who were unfortunate enough to take centre stage would first have their limbs crushed before being ripped apart by four rotating wheels covered in knives.

The fourth-century creator of the spiked wheel, however, saw his efforts undermined during its maiden voyage, from which it takes its name.

The first victim was Catherine of Alexandria, who was condemned to death by the Roman Emperor Maxentius in November AD310 after failing to denounce her Christian faith.

According to Symeon Metaphrastes, the 10th-century historian, shortly after St Catherine was bound to the contraption it mal- functioned, sending pieces into the air. These fatally pierced the inventor and several men who were operating the device.

The demise of the inventor failed to dent its popularity throughout the Middle Ages. It was reincarnated in the 20th century in the less gruesome form of a firework, the Catherine Wheel.

Fereidoun Esfandiary, 'The immortal', Died 2000

As a member of the Iranian basketball, wrestling and fencing teams at the 1948 Olympics, a sometime novelist and early advocate of tele-shopping, there was little that Esfandiary did not turn his hand to during a packed life.

But it was for his self-proclaimed status as global spokesman for immortality that he will be most remembered and, perhaps, derided.

He changed his name in the mid-1970s to FM-2030, the year he intended to celebrate his 100th birthday and his "termination". He then spent the remainder of his life preaching his belief that we should all aspire to the notion of a transcendent eternity.

He renounced his nationality, claiming there were no illegal immigrants and the globe was demarcated by irrelevant borders. He said: "I translive all over the planet."

FM-2030's theories saw him grace the pages of the New York Times and teach at the University of Miami and the University of California at Los Angeles, while he also wrote a series of books on his beliefs. The would-be guru had lived in 17 countries during his first 11 years and spoke French, Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew and English. Conveniently, his elegant features and tall frame gave no hint of where he came from.

His optimism was based on the premise that humans would become "post-biological organs" with artificial body parts becoming readily available to replace their own.

He said: "It's just a matter of time before we reconstitute our bodies into something entirely different, something more space adaptable, something that will be viable across the solar system and beyond."

He had a false hip and cursed the pancreas, labelling it a "stupid, dumb, wretched organ", because it could not yet be artificially replaced.

But immortality evaded him. FM-2030 had his remains cryogenically frozen in a laboratory in Arizona after his death from pancreatic cancer, in the hope that medical science would soon find a cure for the cancer and bring him back to life.

Marie Curie, Nobel winner who discovered radium, 1867 - 1934

Born in Poland as Manya Sklodowska, the scientist moved to Paris as a student and became the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne - chemistry and physics. She married Pierre Curie and they devoted their work to radioactive materials, in particular a form of uranium ore called pitchblende.

Their labours in refining several tons of the ore over years led to the discovery of two new elements: polonium, named after Marie's native country, and radium. She did not patent the process for extracting radium so the metal could be the subject of further research.

Her modesty and dedication were renowned. In a letter to a friend in 1894, she wrote: "I have no dress except the one I wear every day. If you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark so I can wear it afterwards to go to the laboratory."

During the First World War, she pushed for the use of mobile radiography units to treat the wounded and became an international celebrity with a lecture tour in the United States in 1921.

She was the first to win two Nobel prizes in two fields. With her husband and Henri Becquerel, who discovered rays similar to X-rays, she was given the prize for physics in 1903. The prize for chemistry, came in 1911 for the study of "this remarkable element [radium]".

Ironically, Marie became concerned that physicians and makers of cosmetics were not using radioactive substances with sufficient precautions. But she died in the French Alpine town of Sallanches from leukaemia caused by years of exposure to radioactive isotopes.

Her notebooks are still too radioactive to be handled without protective clothing. In 1995, she became the first woman whose remains were placed under the dome of the Pantheon in Paris, the resting place of France's most revered citizens.

William Brodie, Inventor of the trap-door gallows, 1741 - 1788

A respected member of Edinburgh society, William Brodie combined his skill as a cabinet maker and political acumen as a head or deacon of his trade guild to become freeman of the Scottish capital.

But beneath the veneer of civic gentility Brodie led a secret life as a accomplished burglar with which he funded an extravagant lifestyle involving two mistresses, five children and a gambling habit.

Furnished with a day job which included the repair and fitting of locks to his clients' properties, Brodie would copy their keys to allow him and his two accomplices to sneak into the wealthy townhouses at their leisure.

The gang was caught during an attempt to rob His Majesty's Excise Office. Brodie fled to Amsterdam but was arrested and returned to Scotland to face trial.

He was found guilty and sentenced to hang after the jury was told that a search of his house had uncovered the tools of his trade.

Fate had a final irony in store for the duplicitous burglar and burgher. As he approached the gibbet from which he was to swing, Brodie boasted to the crowd that it was the very gallows he had recently redesigned to ensure a quick death by dropping the victim through a trap door and breaking his or her neck. He claimed it was the most efficient gallows in existence.

One historical account states: "He inspected the thing with a professional air and seemed to view the result of his ingenuity with a smile of satisfaction. When placed on that insecure pedestal his courage did not foresake him.

"On the contrary, even there he exhibited a sort of levity; he shuffled about, looked gaily around, and finally went out of the world with his hand stuck carelessly into the open front of his vest."

Stories abounded at the time that Brodie cheated the hangman by inserting a metal tube in his throat and fleeing to Europe. It is also said that his double-life inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's story "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde."

Comments