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6 Inventors Killed by Their Own Inventions

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1. Franz Reichelt

On February 4, 1912, Austrian-born French tailor Franz Reichelt climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower in a wingsuit of his own design. The tailor had told French authorities that he planned to test the suit using dummies, but upon his arrival at the tower, he announced that he would make the jump himself. His friends tried to dissuade him, citing wind speed and other factors—including previously unsuccessful attempts with dummies—but Reichelt was not moved. He would not use a safety rope or any other precautions. “I want to try the experiment myself and without trickery, as I intend to prove the worth of my invention,” he told journalists.

Newspapers described the suit as “only a little more voluminous than ordinary clothing” that, when extended, resembled "a sort of cloak fitted with a vast hood of silk." To release the parachute, which had a surface area of 320 square feet and a height of 16 feet, Reichelt merely had to extend his arms out so that his body was in a cross position. 

By 8:22 a.m., Reichelt was at the top of the Eiffel Tower. He adjusted the suit, and, facing the Seine, tested the wind direction by tossing a scrap of paper off the edge. Then, he placed one foot on the guardrail, and—observed by 30 journalists, two cinematographers (one up top, and one of the ground), and crowds gathered below—jumped.

The parachute folded around Reichelt almost immediately; he plummeted for a few seconds before hitting the ground 187 feet below, leaving a crater 5.9 inches deep. His injuries were gruesome—in its April 1912 issue, Popular Mechanics reported that "his body was a shapeless mass when the police picked it up"—and the tailor was dead by the time onlookers reached him. An autopsy later determined that he died of a heart attack during his fall.

2. Thomas Midgley, Jr.

Thomas Midgley, Jr., an American engineer and chemist, developed additives for gasoline as well as CFCs, and was awarded over 100 patents in his lifetime. When he contracted polio at age 51, he applied that inventor’s spirit to his impairment, creating a system of strings and pulleys that would make it easier for others lift him out of bed. In 1944, when he was 55, Midgley became entangled in the ropes and was strangled by them.

3. Henry Smolinski

Engineer Henry Smolinski wanted to create a commercially viable flying car, so he quit his job at Northrop and started Advanced Vehicle Engineers. In 1973, the company built two prototype vehicles, called AVE Mizars, by fusing the rear end of a Cessna Skymaster airplane—which could be attached and detached from the car—with a Ford Pinto. The chimera vehicles were due to go into production in 1974, but on September 11, 1973, Smolinski and friend Harold Blake were killed when the wing strut detached from the vehicle during a test flight. Bad welds were responsible for the crash.

4. Karel Soucek

In 1984, Czechoslovakian-born stuntman Karel Soucek went over Niagara Falls in a custom-built, shock-absorbent barrel that was 9 feet long and 5 feet in diameter. He emerged, alive but bleeding, at the bottom, and decided to build a museum dedicated to his stunting equipment in Niagara Falls, Ontario. To finance the project, he convinced a company to sponsor another crazy stunt: Dropping the barrel, with Soucek inside, 180 feet from the top of the Houston Astrodome into a tank of water as part of a Thrill Show and Destruction Derby to be held on January 20, 1985.

Reportedly, even daredevil Evel Knievel tried to talk Soucek out of the stunt, calling it “the most dangerous I’ve ever seen,” but the stuntman proceeded anyway. When the barrel was released, it began to spin dangerously, hitting the rim of the water tank instead of landing in the center. The 37-year-old’s chest and abdomen were crushed and his skull was fractured; he died at a hospital while the show was still going on.

5. William Nelson

On October 3, 1903, 24-year-old General Electric employee William Nelson took the new motorized bicycle he had invented out for a test spin. He fell off the bike on a hill and died instantly. According to the New York Times, “Nelson was regarded as an inventor of much promise.”

6. Valerian Ivanovich Abakovsky

Valerian Abakovsky was just 25 when he invented the Aerowagon, a high-speed railcar equipped with an aircraft engine and propeller traction, which was designed to take Soviet officials to and from Moscow. On July 24, 1921, a group of Communists—including Abakovsky, revolutionary Fyodor Sergeyev, and four others—took the Aerocar out for a test run. The vehicle successfully made the trip from Moscow to Tula, but on the way back, it derailed at high speed, killing everyone on board.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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