A few weeks after Wilhelm Röntgen discovered the X-ray in 1895, following experiments with cathode-ray tubes, he captured an image of his wife's left hand on a photographic plate. Looking at the ghostly outline of her finger bones, Mrs. R. is said to have shrieked, "I have seen my death!" All entrepreneurs have to deal with risk, but for most of them it's about capital risk, market risk, and execution risk. Formidable, yes. But for a few others, a startup poses lethal risk. Call it karma or irony or just atrociously bad luck, but the pedal-to-the-metal, never-say-die attitude that entrepreneurs are known for can, sometimes, leave them a bit...well...dead. A few case studies of the perils of innovation follow.
A Businessman's Rocky Road
If Baskin-Robbins had merely given us Jamoca Almond Fudge, it would have been enough. But the in-law entrepreneurs who founded the chain in the 1940s also turned the franchising model into a veritable military operation: Baskin-Robbins was among the first food companies to offer shopowners standardized products created at a central location. It grew from a handful of California-based scoop shops in the late 1940s to about 500 nationwide in 1967, when it sold to United Fruit Company for a tidy sum. But, just months later, defeat was snatched from the jowls of victory when Burt Baskin died of a heart attack at age 54. Irv Robbins's son John, who turned his back on running the family business partly because of what he saw as the negative effects of mass-produced ice cream on both humans and cows, attributed the untimely death to the very product Baskin created: "He was a very big man," Robbins once said, "who ate a lot of ice cream."
Icarus at the Wheel
Some 32 years after the first Model T, its inventor, Henry Ford, said: "Mark my words--a combination aeroplane and motorcar is coming." And he was right. Sort of. In 1973, Henry Smolinski, an aeronautical engineer, was on the verge of bringing a flying car to the masses. His company, Advanced Vehicle Engineers, created the Mizar by grafting the wings and tail of a Cessna onto what is perhaps the most unsightly car ever produced: the Pinto. (The Ford compact would win greater fame for its tendency to ignite in rear-end crashes.) Flying car models were made. Test flights were undertaken. A production run was scheduled. But then, during a late-stage test flight in September 1973, poor design met bad welding, and disaster struck. A strut failed. A wing folded. The aerocar crashed and Smolinski, who was at the controls, was killed, along with an associate. The Mizar? Permanently parked.
The End of a Standup Guy
At 15, James Heselden dropped out of school to work the coal mines in the north of England. When he lost his job in the mid-1980s, he used his meager severance to invent an easy-to-assemble, wire-mesh-and-fabric container--the Hesco barrier--that later became de rigueur in flood zones and as a substitute for sandbags in hot spots like Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2009, Heselden, then one of England's richest men (and among its most generous philanthropists), bought the Segway company, started by entrepreneur Dean Kamen. That, quite literally, was Heselden's downfall: A year after the purchase, he was Segwaying around his West Yorkshire property when he plummeted off a 30-foot cliff to his demise.
Dark Days Ahead
In 1914, a young chemical scientist turned businessman had what seemed like a bright idea: Paint the hands of a clock with radium, Sabin Arnold von Sochocky posited, and you could tell the time even when the lights were off. In 1917, von Sochocky's company, the United States Radium Corporation (founded with George Willis), introduced Undark, a radioluminescent paint. It was a boon for pilots and soldiers in World War I, who could now read their dials and gauges in the dead of night. Demand was strong. There was just one itsy-bitsy, blink-and-you'll-miss-it problem: Radium, it turned out, causes cancer. While von Sochocky envisioned a world with glowing piano keys and Ping-Pong paddles, the workers he'd hired to apply the radium--mostly young women--began getting sick. Very, very sick. By 1927, 50 of them would be dead. A medical examiner in New Jersey, where the factory was located, identified the paint as the cause. In 1928, von Sochocky died of aplastic anemia, a rare condition directly attributable to his glow-in-the-dark dream.
Hot Off the Presses
Machinist William Bullock opened his own shop in 1834, at the tender age of 21, and invented a shingle-cutting machine. Long on can-do spirit but short on a marketing plan, he went bust. Like a good entrepreneur, Bullock kept ideating and went on to design a seed planter, a hay and cotton press, and a slightly famous grain drill. His biggest impact, however, was on the printing press: Bullock's redesign made it possible for paper to be automatically fed from large rolls, allowing some 12,000 sheets to be printed in an hour, a huge advance. In 1867, while adjusting one of his presses at a Philadelphia newspaper, Bullock gave the contraption an entrepreneur's corrective kick. Alas, his leg got caught in the machine, and, before anyone could yell "Stop the presses!" it was crushed. During the operation to amputate the leg, Bullock kicked the bucket.