10 Scary True Stories from Engineering History

Resurrecting the dead, mind control, radiation gone wrong, and man-eating robots, we've rounded up 10 of history's creepiest true tales of science and engineering gone wrong.
  • Some of your favorite horror movies have nothing on the real thing. History is full of plenty of true-to-life tales of mad science. Whether it was malicious or unintentional, the effect is the same and the stories here are certified nightmare fuel. From experiments gone wrong to misguided inventions and occult rituals, you won't believe some of the things that have happened in the name of “science.”

    Click the image above to start the slideshow (if you dare!).

  • Giovani Aldini – The Original Doctor Frankenstein

    Giovani Aldini was an Italian physicist in the 19th century whose primary research revolved around galvanism—electrical stimulation of muscles. While he did a lot of work with animal body parts, his most famous experiment came in 1803 in London, when he used electrical rods to stimulate the muscles of the corpse of an executed criminal. The effect was so dramatic that it was described as giving the appearance that the corpse was coming back to life. Though she was very young when Aldini's experiments were conducted, the author Mary Shelley credited galvanism as one of the inspirations behind Frankenstein.

    (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

  • Bat Bombs

    The bat bomb was easily one of the creepiest inventions to come out of the war effort during World War II. Invented by Lytle S. Adams, a dentist by trade, the idea was a bomb with a hibernating bat inside. As if bats aren't scary enough on their own, Adams attached a tiny incendiary time bomb to each bat. The bat bomb would be dropped under the cover of darkness, where it would open up and release the bat, which would take shelter in or around a building and eventually explode. The intended targets were Japanese homes, which were mainly constructed out of wood and paper and would burn easily. The US military went forward with the development of bat bombs, but they were never deployed in combat and the project was later scrapped because of costs (an estimated $2 million was spent) and time. Dr. Adams maintained that his idea would have been an equally effective, and far more humane, alternative to the atomic bomb.

    (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

  • Cyborg Bugs

    If you think that disgusting bug in your bathroom is watching you, you might be right. Michel Maharbiz, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at UC Berkeley, is heading up a DARPA-funded project to turn beetles into hybrid surveillance units. By outfitting the bugs with a microprocessor, radio receiver, battery, and electrodes implanted into the insect's optic lobes and muscles, researchers are able to remotely control the bugs in flight using an RF transmitter. The military would like to someday use these bugs for surveillance or recon on search-and-rescue missions...or maybe Big Brother will literally bug all of our homes.

    (Image source: UC Berkeley)

  • The EATR Robot

    Yes, that name is pronounced “eater.” Created by Cyclone Power Technologies, the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR) is a DARPA-funded project looking to create robots that can perform missions over long distances and periods of time without the need for traditional refueling or recharging.

    The novel solution? An engine that feeds on biomass for energy. Hearing about a robot that eats biomass for fuel led to immediate speculation that the robot could devour humans (enemy soldiers, for instance) for fuel as well. While most of these allegations were surely made in jest, Cyclone Power Technologies has insisted that the EATR is “strictly vegetarian” and only takes in plant-based matter. Of course, if there was a horror movie about a man-eating robot, that's exactly the sort of thing someone would say right before the mayhem starts.

    (Image source: Cyclone Power Technologies)

  • Head Transplants

    In the 1970s, Robert J. White, an American neurosurgeon, gave new meaning to putting a good head on your shoulders when he performed a successful head transplant surgery on a pair of monkeys. White was able to move the head of one monkey to another monkey's body. But since his procedure involved severing the spine, he wasn't able to preserve their motor ability. The body's circulation system still nourished the brain, however, and the monkey was able to see, hear, smell, taste, eat, and move its eyes. Mercifully, the monkeys only survived for nine days.

    White planned to perform his “full body transplant” (he believed he was transplanting bodies to heads, not the other way around) on human subjects and even set his sights on Stephen Hawking and Christopher Reeve (of Superman fame) as potential beneficiaries of his work. His ambitions never came to fruition. White passed away in 2010, but interest in his work remains to this day, thanks in part to the development of innovative polymers that could allow for a spinal cord to be severed and re-attached without damage.

    (Image source: Vice.com)

  • The North American Hiroshima Maidens: Hair Removal...for a Price

    People have always been on the lookout for the next miracle beauty product, no matter how strange. And plenty are willing to pay a hefty price for a Fountain of Youth (just ask Gwyneth Paltrow).

    In the early 1920s, a doctor named Albert Geyser invented a machine to revolutionize hair removal. The premise behind Geyser's Tricho machine was simple: Sit with your face in the machine for a few minutes, and all of your unwanted facial hair would vanish—with no pain or scarring—never to return!

    The device actually worked like a charm, but there was a catch: Geyser's machine used X-rays.

    By 1925, there were over 75 Tricho systems installed in salons all over the United States. Even with reports appearing widely in medical journals of women suffering injuries and cancerous ulcers from the treatment, the practice of X-ray hair removal didn't end until the 1940s. By then, the women deformed by Geyser's radioactive invention had acquired a formal name in the medical community: the North American Hiroshima Maidens, because of their similarity to radiation victims of the Hiroshima bombing. In perhaps a twisted bit of irony (or karma), Dr. Geyser himself later lost both of his hands due to radiation exposure from his experiments.

    (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

  • The Mind Control of Jose Delgado

    Today, deep brain stimulation is used to treat a variety of neurological conditions including Parkinson's Disease. But the roots of the technology lie in some rather unsettling experiments done by a Spanish doctor named Jose Manuel Rodriguez Delgado.

    In the 1950s and '60s, while working as a professor and researcher at Yale, Delgado performed a number of animal experiments seeking to control the brain using electrical stimulation. His neurostimulation device, which he called the Stimoceiver, was a permanent implant that hit target regions of the brain with radio waves. Over the course of his research, Delgado showed that movements and even emotions in animals could be controlled via electrical stimulation.

    He even performed a famous stunt in which he used the device to divert a bull that was charging him. He later moved on to experiments with human subjects, using mental patients as “volunteers.” There were allegations that he illegally implanted Stimoceivers in patients against their will. The controversy left him with few remaining test subjects...so he turned to experimenting on himself and his own family. In a Yale Medical School Congressional record from 1974, Delgado is quoted as saying: “...Someday armies and generals will be controlled by electric stimulation of the brain.”

    (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

  • The Secret Occult Origins of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

    Today, the NASA-affiliated Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a widely respected hub of scientific advancement. But one of JPL's principals was involved in activities that most would say were distinctly not scientific. Jack Parsons was one of the founders of JPL in 1943 and also one of the first scientists to advocate using rockets for space exploration. He was a pioneer in rocket science and is credited for many advancements in both liquid and solid rocket fuels—all in a time in which rocket scientists were considered rather fringe.

    In his personal life, Parsons was a high-ranking member of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO)—a religious society affiliated with Aleister Crowley, an infamous practitioner of occult magic, who was dubbed “The Wickedest Man in the World” by media outlets at the time. One of the main tenets of the OTO was using ritualistic sex as a means of achieving higher states of consciousness and summoning otherworldly beings.

    Many of Parsons' ideas about rocket science were spurred by his interest in the occult. There have been reports of Parsons performing ritualistic chants before test rocket launches. Parsons' extracurricular activities eventually led to an investigation and he was fired from JPL. He distanced himself from OTO and later died, at the age of 37, in a mysterious explosion in his home laboratory that some theorized may have been a suicide or assassination. Some sources believe Parsons was conducting experiments into alchemy before his death.

    (Image source: i09.com)

  • The Radium Girls

    Starting in 1917, a defense contractor—U.S. Radium Corporation—began supplying the military with radioluminscent watches. Their plants employed mainly women, who were tasked with painting the watches with the radium-based paint that made them glow. Unfortunately, no one ever bothered to tell these women how dangerous radium is. So they thought nothing of licking their radium-dipped paint brushes to give them a finer point or coloring their nails and teeth with radium paint out of the novelty of seeing them glow. As a result, many of them were exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation and suffered radium poisoning. Some suffered a deforming condition that became known as radium jaw, in which bone tumors grew on the jawbone.

    U.S. Radium Corporation tried to cover the whole thing up, saying that radium was harmless and even going as far as to fabricate false medical reports to support its claims. This horrific story does have somewhat of a happy ending. A group of the “Radium Girls” sued the company and won. Their case became a landmark in the labor rights movement, establishing employee responsibility for occupation-related diseases contracted by employees. Urban lore has it that if you stand over a Radium Girl's grave even today it will still move the needle on a Geiger counter.

    (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

  • Zombie Dogs

    In the 1940s, Russian scientists were able to keep severed dog heads alive for hours using an artificial blood circulation system. They even made a video about it. The dogs were heavily sedated and reportedly not in any pain. In 2005, a group of researchers at the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research at the University of Pittsburgh piggybacked on some of this research. The researchers took several dogs and placed them in a state of “suspended animation” by replacing their blood with saline solution. The dogs were clinically dead for three hours before the researchers then replaced the saline solution with blood and were able to revive them. The work is unsettling, to put it lightly—especially for dog lovers. But the hope is that these methods can someday be adapted to help save injured patients who are losing blood too quickly to be saved by current methods.

    (Image source: YouTube)



Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at   Design News  covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, and robotics.

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