Bad Tech: The deadlier techs
Thankfully, most gadgets are useful, existence-enhancing and don’t lead to massive loss of life. However, for a statistically insignificant proportion of inventions, this is not the case.
There's no doubt that many of these bits of tech are superb pieces of engineering. The AK47 for example is a brutally efficient bit of kit - but you're probably not admiring Mr Kalashnikov's handiwork when you're staring down the barrel of one. Not all tech out there is prolonging our lives. Here’s our pick of history’s most efficient techy killers…
Seeking a humane means of offing crims, the French of the late 18th century turned to anatomy professor Joseph-Ignace Guillotine for guidance. Like a homicidal maniac on Scrapheap Challenge, he duly invented a device to immobilise the neck while a blade fell from above to decapitate victims, who no doubt counted themselves lucky to have been treated so humanely. During the revolutionary Reign of Terror from 1793 to 1794, up to 40,000 people were booked in for a short back and sides from Madame Guillotine, and it was still in use in 1977. The device also nearly ended Michael Parkinson’s life when Tommy Cooper, just like that, forgot to put the safety catch on his trick one – only a quick-thinking technician prevented Parky from starring in the goriest It’ll Be Alright on the Night clip ever.
Cars, bikes, buses, trucks etc
Are you proud of yourself, Karl Benz? As the man widely credited with the invention of the modern automobile, YOU are personally responsible for the 1.2 million people killed in traffic accidents each year. Having said that, the car also ushered in the modern age, granting freedom of movement to the masses, and some of the motors that still bear your name are quite nice, so we’ll let it pass this time.
Invented in 1945, the AK-47 is the world’s assault rifle of choice. Designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov for the Soviet Army, its low production cost, reliability and ease of use – plus the Red Army’s failure to protect its copyright, leading to endless copies – has seen 100 million AK-type rifles built to date. Kalashnikov once said he would have preferred to have invented a less destructive machine, “for example, a lawn mower”. Ah yes, the AK-47 Lawn-o-matic, for when you absolutely, positively got to trim every motherf**king blade of grass in the garden…
The Cigarette Machine
Cigarettes are serial killers, but if everyone rolled their own, they’d be less prolific. The real villain is the machine – US patent 238,640 – for the mass production of snouts, invented by James Bonsack and first used by industrialist James Buchanan Duke. A heap of cogs, belts and whirling blades, it rolled a never-ending cigarette that was then cut to standard ciggie lengths, whirling out 120,000 cancer sticks a day. This was a fifth of US consumption at the time and more than Duke could sell, so he aggressively marketed his new product, giving it a toehold in the market that ultimately led to billions of sales and 100s of millions of deaths.
Leaded petrol and CFCs
In 1921, while working for General Motors, inventor Thomas Midgley Jr discovered that adding lead to gasoline eradicated “knocking” from engines. Billions of tonnes of lead were ultimately pumped into the atmosphere as a result. He then set about revolutionising refrigeration, inventing ozone-destroying CFCs in just three days. Midgley continued his run of good in theory inventions in later life when, crippled by polio, he built a harness to help himself out of bed. Although this had minimal impact on the Earth’s ecosystems, he did eventually became tangled up in it, dying of strangulation as a result.
In 1867, Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel patented a mix of nitro-glycerine and diatomaceous earth – a soft sedimentary rock that is easily crushed into powder – as “dynamite”. In 1888 his brother died and a French newspaper published Alfred’s obituary accidentally, using the opening line “The merchant of death is dead”. The hurt this caused Alfred led to him bequeathing £1.7 million – 94 per cent of his assets, around £190m today – to establish the Nobel Prizes. This, in turn, inspired noughties UK garage crooner Ms Dynamite, who preached a message of positive vibes and generally not blowing things to smithereens.
…Speaking of which, J Robert Oppenheimer, along with Enrico Fermi, is often dubbed “the father of the atomic bomb” for his role in the Manhattan Project, the WWII initiative that developed the first nuclear weapons. The devices detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed 150,000 in a second. Aghast at what he had done, Oppenheimer declared, “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds” – and you think you have bad days at the office.
Deep fat fryers, sugar refiners
Heart disease is the world’s biggest killer. It’s hard to point the finger at an individual for all that death, but in our view responsibility must be shared between Northerners – chips were first sold in this country in 1860s Oldham – fast food chains for industrialising the production and selling of high-fat foods, and the US sugar industry, which for decades successfully lobbied to be counted as a virtual health food, on the basis that it was less bad for you than fat. Oh and you, sir, for being a greedy pig.