Inventors Who Tested Their Inventions Out on Themselves

As Jeff Bezos prepares to travel to space onboard his Blue Origin rocket, we look at other inventors who tried out their inventions on themselves.
Marcia Wendorf

In July 2021, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced that he and his brother Mark are set to fly into space onboard Bezos's Blue Origin New Shepherd spacecraft. Bezos created Blue Origin in 2000 to focus on space tourism.

Bezos and his brother will be joined by the winner of an auction who will pay a minimum of $2.8 million for the third seat on the vehicle. Besides a spectacular view, the suborbital flight will provide its passengers with at least three minutes of weightlessness.

Bezos will join a long list of inventors and entrepreneurs who tried out their inventions on themselves, some with spectacular success, and others not so much. Let's take a look at some of the more notable inventors who were among the first to try out their inventions themselves.

Francis Edgar Stanley - Stanley Steamer automobile

Francis Edgar Stanley, known as F.E., and his twin brother Freelan Oscar Stanley, known as F.O., were born in 1849. After attending what is today the University of Maine at Farmington, F.E. became interested in photography and he opened a photographic studio in 1874.

The studio became a success and F.E. patented the first photographic airbrush, which was used to colorize photographs. Soon, F.O joined F.E. in the business, and they became dissatisfied with the quality of the dry plates that were used widely at the time.

The brothers patented a machine for coating dry plates and created the Stanley Dry Plate Company in Watertown, Massachusetts. The business was soon doing over $1 million in annual sales. Despite this, the brothers abandoned photography entirely when they took up a new passion — steam-powered automobiles.

The brothers formed the Stanley Motor Carriage Company, which built the famous Stanley Steamer automobile. The cars featured light wooden bodies mounted on tubular steel frames, and the steam was generated in a vertical fire-tube boiler with a vaporizing gasoline burner underneath.

Stanley Steamer setting record mile in 1903 at Daytona Beach
Stanley Steamer setting record mile in 1903 at Daytona Beach Source: Wikimedia Commons

The brothers entered their cars in auto races, pitting their steam power against gasoline-fueled engines, and in many cases, the steam-powered car won. In 1906, a Stanley Steamer set the world record for the fastest mile (1.6 km) in 28.2 seconds, driving at an astounding 127 mph (205 km/h). This record for steam-powered automobiles wasn't broken until 2009.

Beginning in 1912, the electric starter was introduced in internal combustion cars, replacing the much-hated crank, and sales of the cars soared. In 1918, the Stanley brothers sold their business, having manufactured over 10,000 steam-powered cars. Then, that same year, F.E. was driving one of his cars in Wenham, Massachusetts when he drove into a woodpile while attempting to avoid several farm wagons traveling side by side on the road, and he was killed. In 1924, the Stanley Motor Carriage Company closed for good.

Michael Dacre - Avcen Jetpod aircraft

In 1988, the company Avcen Limited was incorporated in Britain and Kuala Lumpur to create the Avcen Jetpod, a short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft. The craft would have been ideal as a military transport, executive aircraft, or as an air taxi.

Avcen's publicity materials stated that the Jetpod's maximum speed would be 340 mph (550 km/h), and that the craft would need only 137 yards (125 m) to take off or land. This would allow the plane to operate close to city centers.

On August 16, 2009, in Malaysia, Dacre attempted to take off in a just-completed prototype Jetpod. After three failed takeoff attempts, he succeeded in becoming airborne, before the plane stalled and crashed, killing Dacre.

Albert Hofmann - LSD

Albert Hofmann was born in Baden, Switzerland in 1906. After receiving a degree in chemistry, he went to work at Sandoz Laboratories, now a subsidiary of the drug maker Novartis. At Sandoz, he worked with medicinal plants to synthesize active compounds for pharmaceuticals. Hofmann began looking at the fungus ergot, for use as a circulatory and respiratory stimulant, and while researching lysergic acid derivatives in November 1938, Hofmann first synthesized LSD.

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There the sample sat until April 16, 1943, when Hofmann decided to re-examine it. Unbeknownst to him, Hofmann absorbed a small amount of the drug through his fingertips, and as Hofmann put it: "... I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors."

Albert Hofmann at 100
Albert Hofmann at 100 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Three days later, on what has become known as "Bicycle Day", Hofmann ingested 250 micrograms of LSD and the effects of the drug hit him while he was riding home on his bicycle. Hofmann went on to study Mexican mushrooms and morning glories, synthesizing the drugs psilocybin and ololiuhqui, the latter of which closely resembled LSD.

Hofmann continued to take small doses of LSD for the rest of his life, and he lived to the age of 102. Hofmann called LSD a "sacred drug", saying, "I see the true importance of LSD in the possibility of providing material aid to meditation aimed at the mystical experience of a deeper, comprehensive reality."

In a speech on his 100th birthday, Hofmann said of the drug, "It gave me an inner joy, an open mindedness, a gratefulness, open eyes and an internal sensitivity for the miracles of creation.... I think that in human evolution it has never been as necessary to have this substance LSD. It is just a tool to turn us into what we are supposed to be."

Otto Lilienthal - Glider

Otto Lilienthal was born in 1848 in the German kingdom of Prussia. From a young age, he and his brother Gustav were fascinated by the idea of manned flight and they made strap-on wings.

Training as an engineer, Lilienthal received a patent for a mining machine and founded a company that made boilers and steam engines. In 1889, Lilienthal published his book, Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation.

Otto Lilienthal's glider displayed at the National Air and Space Museum
Otto Lilienthal's glider displayed at the National Air and Space Museum Source: cliff1066/Wikimedia Commons

Beginning in 1891, Lilienthal made over 2,000 flights in gliders he designed, achieving flight distances of 820 feet (250 m). He also created monoplanes, wing flapping aircraft, and two biplanes.

In 1894, Lilienthal built a 49-foot-high (15 m) conical hill near his home in Lichterfelde which allowed him to launch his gliders no matter which way the wind was blowing. On August 9, 1896, Lilienthal took off from the hill before the glider pitched forward and fell. Lilienthal's neck was broken and he died the next day.

In September 1909, Orville Wright visited Lilienthal's widow to pay tribute to her husband, and in 1972, Lilienthal was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame. A German Air Force tanker has been named the "Otto Lilienthal" in his honor, and today's hang gliders and ultralight aircraft make extensive use of Lilienthal's designs.

Barry Marshall - Gut bacteria

By 1985, Barry Marshall and his research partner J. Robin Warren were frustrated. The two researchers at Royal Perth Hospital in Australia had submitted articles to medical journals claiming that bacteria in the gut was the cause of acute gastritis, gastrointestinal ulcers, and other diseases, but none had been published.

Up until then, the medical community believed that ulcers were largely a psychosomatic disease caused by stress. To prove them wrong, Marshall drank a solution containing the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, hoping that it would lead to gastritis, which he could then cure with antibiotics. A few days later, Marshall became nauseous, started vomiting, and had terrible breath to boot.

An endoscopy found that Marshall's entire stomach had been colonized by the bacteria, and he needed to take antibiotics in order to beat back the infection. Marshall's suffering was apparently worth it since he and Warren received the 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work. Today, people suffering from peptic ulcers are routinely treated with antibiotics.

Fred Duesenberg - automobile

Fred Duesenberg was born in Germany in 1876. After his father's death, Duesenberg's mother, along with her seven children, immigrated to the U.S., where they settled in Iowa.

Both Duesenberg and his younger brother Augie showed a mechanical aptitude at a young age, and they went on to build gasoline-powered internal combustion engines. Their first car was a two-cylinder, followed by a four-cylinder version of the design which Fred patented.

Next came the Duesenberg straight-eight engine which was also patented. Recognizing that auto racing helped sell cars, the Duesenbergs began entering their cars in the Indianapolis 500, starting in 1912. One of their drivers was future World War I aviation ace Eddie Rickenbacker.

Duesenberg 1922 Indy 500 winner
Duesenberg 1922 Indy 500 winner Source: Sicnag/Wikimedia Commons

Following WWI, the brothers moved their car company to Indianapolis, Indiana, and in 1920, they released their new car which featured an "inline eight-cylinder overhead cam engine and four-wheel hydraulic brakes." In 1926, the company was acquired by the Auburn Automobile Company with Fred remaining as vice president of engineering. The company put out the Models X, S, and J, and incredibly, the cars could reach a maximum speed of 115 miles per hour (185 km/h).

In April 1920, a Duesenberg race car set a land-speed record of 156.046 miles per hour (251.132 km/h), and in 1921, Jimmy Murphy drove a Duesenberg racecar to become the first American car to win the Grand Prix at Le Mans, France. Fred Duesenberg designed the engines for three Indy 500 race winners, those of 1924, 1925, and 1927.

On July 2, 1932, Fred Duesenberg was returning to Indianapolis from New York, driving a new Duesenberg prototype with a high-powered engine. In Pennsylvania, he lost control and crashed. He died three weeks later. Besides the eight-cylinder engine and four-wheel brakes, Duesenberg is also credited with inventing overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, the automatic transmission, and a cooling system.

Horace Hunley - submarine

In 1861, Horace Hunley was a Louisiana lawyer living in New Orleans. When the Union blockaded southern ports during the Civil War, the Confederate government offered bounties of up to $50,000 for the development of a submarine that could sink Union ships.

The H.L. Hunley submarine
The H.L. Hunley submarine Source: Conrad Chapmann/Wikimedia Commons

Hunley partnered with James McClintock and Baxter Watson in creating the submarine Pioneer, but she had to be scuttled to avoid being captured by Union forces. The trio's next attempt was the American Diver, but while attempting an attack on Union ships blocking the Mobile harbor, she sank.

Working by himself, Hunley's third attempt was the H.L. Hunley, which Hunley himself took command of during a test on October 15, 1863. The vessel sank, taking Hunley and all eight crew members to the bottom.

In 1864, the Confederacy raised the H.L. Hunley, and she was finally successful in sinking an enemy vessel, the USS Housatonic, in a first for naval history. However, the Hunley once again sank, losing all hands. The submarine was raised in 2000 and researchers found the remains of the crew members still at their posts. They speculated that the blast from the torpedo that sunk the Housatonic produced a shock wave that ruptured blood vessels in the crew’s lungs, killing them instantaneously and causing the Hunley to sink for the final time.

Thomas Andrews Jr. - ships

At age 16, in 1889, Thomas Andrews Jr. began an apprenticeship at Irish shipbuilder Harland and Wolff. Working tirelessly during his five-year apprenticeship, Andrews became a member of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects, and was considered a genius in the field of ship design.

Titanic Source: FGO Stuart/Wikimedia Commons

In 1907, Andrews began design work along with William Pirrie and Alexander Carlisle on three new liners for the White Star Line: the RMS Olympic, the RMS Titanic, and the RMS (later HMHS) Britannic. They were designed to be the largest and safest ships at sea, however, Andrews' suggestions that the Titanic carry 48 lifeboats instead of the 20 she ended up with, plus that she has a double hull and watertight bulkheads were ignored.

On April 10, 1912, Andrews along with other members of the Harland and Wolff team traveled from Belfast to Southampton where they boarded for the Titanic's maiden voyage.

On April 14, 1912, at 11:40 p.m., the Titanic struck an iceberg on the ship's starboard side. Andrews was summoned by Captain Edward J. Smith to help examine the damage, and he determined that the first six of the ship's 16 watertight compartments were flooded, two more than the ship could withstand.

As forcefully depicted in the 1997 movie Titanic, Andrews was reportedly last seen by a steward standing alone in the 1st-class smoking room with his arms folded, his life vest lying on a nearby table. Others reported that he had left the smoking room to help others into the lifeboats, and was reportedly seen by one person standing next to Captain Smith on the bridge of the ship just before it was submerged. In any case, Andrews perished, along with 1,500 others on board the ship, and his body was never recovered.

In 1914, the Thomas Andrews Jr. Memorial Hall was opened in Comber, and in 2004, Asteroid 245158 Thomasandrews was named in his honor.

Franz Reichelt - parachute

Franz Reichelt was born in 1878 in the Kingdom of Bohemia. He moved to Paris in 1898 where he became a tailor and opened a successful dressmaking shop.

By 1910, parachutes had been developed for use from high altitudes, but there were none that would work at low altitudes. Reichelt began to create a "parachute suit" which included several rods, rubber, and a silk canopy.

Reichelt tested his designs on dummies that he dropped from the fifth floor of his apartment building, but none were successful. In 1911, a prize of 10,000 francs was offered to anyone who could develop a parachute for aviators. Reichelt refined his design, and strapping it on, he jumped from a height of 26 to 33 feet (8 to 10 m). Again, Reichelt's parachute failed, but his fall was broken by a pile of straw. Another attempt from 26 feet (8 m) resulted in Reichelt breaking his leg.

In 1912, Reichelt was finally granted permission to conduct a test using a dummy which would be dropped from the first deck of the Eiffel Tower. On Sunday, February 4, 1912, at 7:00 a.m., Reichelt, along with two friends arrived at the Eiffel Tower. Reichelt was wearing his parachute suit, and he announced that rather than a dummy, he would be making the jump.

At 8:22 a.m., Reichelt climbed on top of a restaurant table and facing east toward the Seine, jumped from a height of 187 feet (57 m). Instead of opening, Reichelt's parachute almost immediately folded around his body, and he struck the frozen ground, creating a hole 6 inches (15 cm) deep.

Of his upcoming journey, Jeff Bezos told the New York Times, "I want to go on this flight because it's the thing I've wanted to do all my life," something which each of the inventors described here could probably say as well. We wish Mr. Bezos the best of luck.

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