When Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot created the world’s first ever self-propelled automobile in 1770, he used whatever materials he could adapt. He modified a horse-drawn gun carriage and added a large boiler, stocked with firewood. His steam-powered vehicle moved at 2.25 mph, and it required a fresh-lit fire every 15 minutes. It was very unstable and in 1771, it reportedly crashed into a wall in Paris, marking the first-ever automobile accident. The project was abandoned soon afterwards, but the King of France rewarded Cugnot with a handsome pension, which was withdrawn during the French Revolution, but reinstated by Napoleon.
Desforges’ Flying Machine
During the eight months he spent in the Bastille prison for his controversial writings, the abbot Jacques Desforges sketched and designed wild inventions. In 1772, he tried to fly a vehicle from the Tour de Guinette in Etampes. His contraption was made from wicker and feathers and shaped like a gondola with wings. “He was carried by four peasants to a height near Etampes and as soon as he told them to let go of the gondola, he fell to the ground; but he got away with a slight bruise on his elbow,” one journalist wrote. By strange coincidence, the illustration above, showing a flying chariot and a view of the Tour de Guinette, was made in the 1400s.
Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier holds the dubious honour of being the first air crash fatality, along with his flying companion Pierre Romain. Rozier, born in 1754, was a science teacher who attempted to sail a hot air balloon, which also made use of hydrogen, over the English Channel. He and Romain perished when the balloon caught fire over the Pas-de-Calais while flying 450 meters up. Today, the Rozière Balloon, a modern hybrid hot air balloon, is named after him.
The ‘Turtle’ Submersible
During the American Revolutionary War, the American combat engineer David Bushnell created a submersible vessel named the Turtle that could stick explosives to other ships. This wooden contraption was only 10 feet long and three feet wide, and it was reinforced with tar and steel. A hand crank and pedals helped the driver to propel the Turtle upwards and forwards. On several occasions, American troops tried and failed to use the Turtle against British ships. However, Bushnell’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed: George Washington described him as “a Man of great Mechanical Powers, fertile of invention and a master in execution.”
According to early records, an Ottoman scientist named Lagari Han Çelebi achieved the first-ever crewed rocket launch in Turkey in 1633. He landed safely in the sea and was rewarded richly by Sultan Murad IV. However, many have argued this success story, which spawned no further rocket launches, is improbable. In 2009, investigators on the TV show Mythbusters argued that Çelebi would have struggled to make such a machine without modern metal alloys. They recreated his invention, as described in contemporary records, and their copy rocket exploded during its maiden voyage.
The majestic Vasa warship was built at great expense by the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus in the 1620s. Overladen with bronze cannons and ornate decorations, the ship set sail from Stockholm in August 1628. It left the port with a gun salute on a pleasant and calm day. But at the first gust of wind just 1.3 kilometres from land, Vasa leaned over heavily, and soon afterwards it began to take on water. As the ship sank, 30 people perished as thousands of citizens and dignitaries watched from the shore.
Sylvester Howard Roper invented one of the earliest cars in 1863, but he spent his later years working on the first-ever motorcycle. His ‘Roper Steam Velocipe’ consisted of a steam-propelled bicycle with a boiler and chimney. While Roper demonstrated his invention at the Charles River Velodrome in Massachusetts in 1896, witnesses saw a “sudden pallor” pass over Roper’s face before he crashed and unfortunately died at the scene. However, it was never determined whether the 72-year-old Roper died as a result of the crash itself, or from cardiac arrest just before his accident.
The notoriously competitive inventor Thomas Edison tried and failed to create a viable helicopter in the 1880s. He used guncotton to power the engine, which resulted in an explosion that left one of his workers with serious burns. By 1908, Edison had patented designs for another helicopter that ran on gasoline, but it was never built. Instead, Edison would ultimately voice his support for a different helicopter inventor. Jerome de Botherzat’s early experimental helicopter, also known as the Flying Octopus, was reasonably successful in good wind conditions. However, as it was difficult to control, only flew for a matter of minutes, and could only fly in a forward direction, the US Army brought an end to Botherzat’s helicopter project in 1924.
In the 1870s, one little-known inventor named Dr William Calver started to build a mirror system that he hoped would harness solar power, which could “serve mankind… run his railroads, furnish light and heat to cities, [and] propel vessels across the ocean.” Calver’s system ultimately did little more than boil water, yet he was way ahead of his time in his environmentally-friendly ambitions. Today, not only can electric cars be charged via solar power, but solar-powered yachts and cars are also making waves.
John Day’s Submarine
John Day was a 34-year-old carpenter who created a diving chamber in the 1770s. It lacked an engine and was made from wood, yet Day, who was funded by a gambler named Christopher Blake, was convinced it could descend to 130ft and remain underwater for 12 hours. On June 22, 1774, Day took his invention off the coast of Plymouth, England and loaded it with ballast weights. Accompanied by a hammock, candle, water and stash of biscuits, Day began his descent, but he never returned to the surface, as he had completely miscalculated the forces that would push his vessel down. He most likely perished from asphyxiation, hypothermia or the vessel’s structural failure, in what became the first-ever recorded fatal submarine accident.