5 Engineers with Fatally Terrible Inventions

March 31, 2014

If I stopped to count how many engineers have positively affected my life, I would have no time for anything else. Instead, let’s look at those other engineers – the ones with fatally terrible inventions.

The staggering talent of thousands of engineers bears fruit with every processor cycle of the slick little laptop I’m typing this on. The pre-stressed concrete of the office I’m writing this in, the electrical systems, plumbing systems, HVAC and so forth would be so much idle imagining without countless engineers behind the scenes.

But there have been a few engineers – the misguided, misinformed, or just plain mad – with a back-handed genius for terrible inventions.

#5. Henry Smolinski’s Terrible Invention: The AVE Mizar

5 Engineers with Fatally Terrible Inventions

Credit: Doug Duncan

Who among us hasn’t dreamed of a flying car while stuck in traffic? The Fulton Airphibian and the Taylor Aerocar were early examples of craft that could, with some reassembly and effort, be flown in the air or driven as automobiles. Fulton’s Airphibian was essentially a plane that could do light car duty when required, while the Aerocar’s design was slightly more automobile-like.  While both of them flew like cars, they also happened to drive like planes – that is to say, clumsily. Both were regarded mostly as curiosities, and were purchased and flown only by a handful of people.

Enter the AVE Mizar! Smolinski, not content with the lightweight, hard to steer ground-modes of the Airphibian and Aerocar, decided to go all-out on the automobile portion of his flying automobile. To that end, he started with a Ford Pinto, adding the wings, tail booms, and engine from a Cessna Skymaster. The original Pinto engine provided power on the ground, and was intended to be used during takeoff to supplement the Cessna engine.

Surprisingly enough, it flew. Unfortunately the AVE Mizar was plagued with bad welds and in 1973 crashed, killing Smolinski and a passenger.

#4. Ted Merkle’s Terrible Invention: The SLAM

What’s better than a ramjet-powered cruise missile with sixteen thermonuclear warheads? How about the Supersonic Low-Altitude Missile? Not only was it ramjet-powered and armed with anywhere from 14 to 26 thermonuclear warheads, but it was powered by an unshielded nuclear reactor.

5 Engineers with Fatally Terrible Inventions

Paul DiMare

Not terrible enough? Suppose we vent fission byproducts through the exhaust?

Want more? The SLAM was to have terrain contour matching radar.

Still not enough? How about a range exceeding 100,000 miles!

You want a more perfectly engineered Doomsday Device? You must be stopped.

Affectionately named the “Flying Crowbar” for its wingless appearance – and, somewhat  less affectionately, “the Weapon from Hell” – the SLAM emerged from a (thankfully canceled) U.S. Air force project: Project Pluto.

Designed by Ted Merkle of Lawrence Livermore National Labs, its substantial reactor was designed to accelerate it to over Mach 3. At the SLAM’s thousand foot (300m) cruising altitude even its shock wave could kill. If you managed to survive that, and you weren’t on the list for a warhead, the gamma waves, neutrons, and fission fragments might have made you wish you were.

One suggested tactical doctrine for the SLAM was to fly around over Soviet territory, killing and irradiating everything underneath just by being there.

Two variants of the reactor/engine were tested in the mid-60s before the program, mercifully, was canceled. The SLAM wouldn’t be ready before the end of the decade, and ICBMs provided more bang for the buck.

#3 Valerian Abakovsky’s Terrible Invention: The Aerowagon

5 Engineers with Fatally Terrible Inventions

Public Domain Image, Author Unknown

So far we’ve had a flying Pinto and a flying nuclear reactor. How about flying trains? Though powered by an aircraft engine, Abakovsky’s Aerowagon wasn’t designed to fly – but fly it did. Valerian Avakovsky. a Russian engineer from Latvia, successfully piloted the Aerowagon from Moscow to the industrial city of Tula on July 24th, 1921. Unfortunately the return trip proved to be a fatal one, killing Abakovsky, Fyodor Sergeyev, and four others when the Aerowagon violently derailed.

Unfortunately we didn’t immediately learn from Valerian’s mistake, and several other unlikely aircraft/rail combinations were brought to being. The BMW V-12 powered Schienenzeppelin dazzled the German public with speeds in excess of 140mph, but was never developed – something about open propellers in train stations didn’t sit well with German engineers. Not to be outdone, the French experimented with a hovercraft train, and the New York Central Railroad tested a Budd Rail Diesel Car propelled by twin GE J47-19 turbojets.

Fortunately for anybody living close to railroad tracks, these projects never made it into production

#2. Alexander Kartveli’s Terrible Invention: The Thunderscreech

Designer of the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, the F-84 Thunderjet/Thunderstreak, and the F-105 Thunderchief, Kartveli was a huge influence on U.S. fighter design. His F-105 could exceed Mach 2 – in 1955.  Even so, jet aircraft performance in the 50s left something to be desired. Early turbojets provided ample thrust, but had dismal fuel efficiency. Propeller-driven aircraft were efficient, had reasonable landing speeds, but weren’t particularly speedy. Hence the reasoning behind the afterburning turboprop XF-84H “Thunderscreech.”

5 Engineers with Fatally Terrible Inventions

Credit: USAF

The Thunderscreech sported twin Allison T38 jet engines, capable of generating over 7,000 shaft horsepower with afterburner. The T38 delivered this power to a squat, square-bladed Aeroproducts propeller, whose constant speed was an impressive Mach 1.18. Unfortunately, the fighter prototype had a few tiny problems.

Audible up to 25 miles away, The Thunderscreech was notorious around Edwards AFB. Air Force test pilots refused to have anything to do with it, and thus the prototypes were only ever flown by Republic Aircraft test pilots. The Mach 1.18 propeller emitted a continuous and visible sonic boom even while idle, and although the vertical stabilizer and tail were specifically designed to counter the plane’s monstrous torque, it still was difficult to fly. If that wasn’t enough, the cacophony from the XF-84H was enough to give one Republic engineer a seizure.

#1. Thomas Midgely, Jr.’s Terrible Invention(s): Tetraethyl Lead and Freon

5 Engineers with Fatally Terrible Inventions

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Last – but most certainly not least – we present the strange, sad saga of Thomas Midgely, Jr.

Midgely’s macabre story started at General Motors, in 1916. Charles Kettering. a General Motors engineer, was developing a small kerosene-powered internal combustion engine to generate electricity for lighting. Unfortunately, Kettering’s engine suffered from serious knocking, a condition wherein the fuel-air mixture in an IC engine’s combustion chamber violently preignites before it is supposed to.

Knocking can lead (as some of you older gearheads can attest) to anything from an unpleasant noise and power loss to burnt or broken pistons and holes punched in cylinder heads. Higher octane fuels are less susceptible to this pre-detonation, but octane is expensive. Ethyl alcohol can be added to boost octane rating, but the resultant blend’s energy density is lower. (Besides, one can’t patent alcohol.)

So Midgley worked his way through the periodic table, trying different additives to combat this knocking. Eventually he came to lead, in the form of tetraethyl lead. The knocking stopped. Valves fouled less often. Midgely was awarded the 1923 Nichols Medal by the American Chemical Society, and we all lived happily ever after.

5 Engineers with Fatally Terrible Inventions

Credit: Plazak

Actually, what happened was that Midgely fled to Florida, to recover from the symptoms of lead poisoning. “After about a year’s work in organic lead, I find that my lungs have been affected and that it is necessary to drop all work and get a large supply of fresh air.” Meanwhile, General Motors and Standard Oil formed the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation to produce tetraethyl lead. In 1924, the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation began manufacturing tetraethyl lead in New Jersey. However, it wasn’t long before plant workers were hallucinating. Five people died. Midgely, undeterred, poured tetraethyl lead all over his hands and inhaled the fumes from a bottle of it at a press conference later that year. Unmoved, the State of New Jersey closed the plant and forbade the production of tetraethyl lead in the state. Midgely, meanwhile, took another long vacation to recover from lead poisoning.

If tetraethyl lead was Midgely’s only major project, it still would qualify as a terrible invention.  Recent research suggests that the drop in crime rates since the early 90s was a direct effect of the phasing out of tetraethyl lead in the 1970s.

Unfortunately for all of us, history wasn’t quite done with Thomas Midgely, Jr.

5 Engineers with Fatally Terrible Inventions

Credit: David Brodbeck

Once again, the dangerous duo of Kettering and Midgely turned their considerable, if problematic, talents to developing a new refrigerant.  They decided to investigate alkyl halides, a chemical class combining hydrogen chains and halides, because of several unique properties of alkyl halides that suited refrigeration. Soon, they hit on chlorofluorocarbon, first synthesized by Belgian chemist Frédéric Swarts.  Midgely’s madmen improved synthesis of the compound to a point where it could be easily manufactured in bulk, set about demonstrating its efficacy and safety, and unleashed dichlorodifluoromethane on the world.  You probably know it as Freon, or R-12.

By the middle of the 80s, research suggested that chlorofluorocarbons, though not terribly toxic to humans, might be breaking apart ozone molecules high in the Earth’s atmosphere.  Ozone depletion over the Antarctic was first observed in 1985. Two years later, 43 nations signed the Montreal Protocol and agreed to phase out chlorofluorocarbon emissions.

Midgely never lived to see the consequences of his inventions.  In 1940, he contracted Polio.  An inventor and engineer to the end, he developed a series of ropes and pulleys to help his caretakers get him in and out of bed.  On November 2nd, 1944, Thomas Midgely Jr. was found dead, strangled by the ropes of his last invention.


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Featured Image Credit A Rendle