Elisha Otis was an engineer in a time when the job description for the position was "dude who disassembles old machines." As such, he found himself with the job of converting an old mill to a factory, a position made significantly more exciting by the fact that the only way to clear the upper floors was by using a system of hoisting platforms. We said this was exciting because back in 1851, hoisting platforms was about as safe as trying to insert contacts into the eyes of an angry bear.
"This seems like a terrible idea."
After having to dodge certain death every few days, Otis decided enough was enough, but instead of quitting and becoming a street sweeper, he invented the world's first automatic braking system. This was a safety device that, should the hoist fail, would clamp down on the rope before the platform could collapse to the ground and kill everyone using it.
That's it right there. Probably.
Pleased with himself, Otis continued his job, never thinking of patenting the device or even asking for a raise. It took two years until he realized that people might be extremely interested in an invention that could prevent them from plummeting to a certain death from the 30th floor of a recently built skyscraper.
So how did this guy earn a spot on this list?
His rockin' power beard?
Well, deciding to go into business for himself, Otis knew he'd have to demonstrate his life-saving braking system. So at the 1853 World's Fair, he got up on a platform and allowed volunteers to cut the fucking rope holding him aloft. Always eager to help, or maybe just wanting a funny story to tell later, a volunteer stepped forward and chopped through Otis' lifeline.
The brake worked. It was so successful that it was soon implemented in all elevators and contributed to a boom in tall buildings. Not only did Otis' safety mechanism encourage people to use elevators, but construction workers could now use cranes and hoisting platforms with a lot more confidence. It's surprising how much morale can increase when you're not likely to die every morning on your way to your cubicle.
Ah, the glorious days before workers' comp.
Since the dawn of history, mankind has wanted to soar into the skies and hopefully return to the ground safely. While the first part of the equation was relatively easy to achieve as long as you had a tall cliff, it was landing back on ground with your innards still inside your skin that was the tough part.
Ah, the rich history of falling.
Keep in mind that even before there was such a thing as planes, there were towers you could plummet from. So people had dabbled with the idea of parachutes even during the Renaissance, with mixed results. In other words, don't ask. But the fact that there were no recorded incidents of people successfully using a parachute didn't stop Loui-Sebastien Lenormand.
In the 1700s, the man decided to toss away all the designs created by the great thinkers before him and basically use two umbrellas strung together. He tested his invention in the simplest way possible: by using it to jump from a tree. Satisfied that nothing in his body was broken, Lenormand decided to take it to the nearest tower.
Hanging. Past. His. Knees.
On Dec. 26, 1783, Lenormand jumped from the Montpellier Observatory in France in front of an amazed crowd. His homemade parachute not only worked (and in fact inspired the word "parachute") but also inspired two brothers who saw him to create a manned hot air balloon.
Followed shortly by the zeppelin.
Unfortunately for Lenormand, the true purpose of his parachute -- namely, saving people from burning buildings -- could also be achieved with a tall ladder. Disappointed, he retreated into a monastery, where he dedicated himself to theoretical studies for the rest of his life.
Who else could have been #1?
When it comes to medicine, most innovations are made after years of careful animal testing and even longer years of adapting the drugs for human use. That's how you make sure you're not going to kill the patients you're trying to save. But in the mid-1900s, with polio claiming thousands of lives every year, there was no time for decades of research.
Again, not normally a phrase followed by good things.
Jonas Salk knew all of this, and he also knew that telling the public to inject themselves with a "killed" version of the polio virus would be met with protests. Not only did all previous attempts at inoculation fail miserably, but in one test, six children were killed and three left crippled after trying a potential vaccine. Yeah.
Also, Salk kind of looked like a mad scientist.
So basically, saying "polio vaccine" in the 1940s was likely to get you lynched.
But Salk believed that his method of killing the virus would allow the body to build immunity without any risk. He was so certain of it that when the scientific community asked who in their right mind would willingly take the vaccine, Salk raised his hand.
That man hated him some polio.
But it wasn't just his own life he was willing to risk. To avoid any debate about age or gender influencing the results, Salk also volunteered ... his whole family.
One by one, Salk, his wife and his three children were injected with a substance that many believed would kill or at least paralyze them. Then they all died.
Ha! No, not really. Everybody came through fine -- a fact that made headlines around the world. Widespread vaccination would later practically eradicate polio from the planet, all thanks to Salk's humongous balls.
Pssh. It was just polio.
For more scientists with balls of steel, check out The 6 Most Badass Stunts Ever Pulled in the Name of Science. Or learn about the actually insane ones, in 9 Real Life Mad Scientists.
And stop by Linkstorm to see Soren trying out his Kevlar jock-strap.
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