Death by Invention: 5 Inventors who Died by Their Own Work

Li Si

In 221 B.C., China was converted from a chaotic jumble of warring states into a unified country by the ruling Qin Dynasty. In accomplishing this goal, the politicians of the time used the doctrine of Legalism -- a system of rewards and punishments meted out through the halls of government and on the streets where its citizens lived.

One of the most important figures involved in the expansion of the Qin Dynasty is Li Si, a man born to a family of commoners in circa 280 B.C. and one who rose from a simple clerk in his local government to one of the most influential men in the imperial court.

Li Si was a smooth-talking political operative who found favor with Zheng, the King of Qin and its first emperor. He coaxed the king into accepting many dubious policies of his, such as bribing enemies who could be bought and assassinating those who couldn't; tricking neighboring states into subjugation through outright lies; and collecting and burning all books except those regarding medicine, divination and agriculture. Li Si was well-liked by the king, as evidenced by his appointment to chancellor sometime between 219 and 213 B.C., which made him one of the two highest-ranking subjects in the empire.

Although the burning of books is the act Li Si is most remembered for by Chinese scholars, it's another of his ideas that has captured the popular imagination: his invention of The Five Pains. In this method of torture and execution, a criminal would have first his nose cut off, then a hand and a foot. These were followed by castration and finally death by being cut in half.

Perhaps in an example of "instant Karma," Li Si was himself subjected to the cruelties of his own invention in 208 B.C., when he was convicted of treason and executed via The Five Pains.