The Death Ray: humanity’s hoax-ridden quest to invent the ultimate weapon


EXCERPT: The ancients didn’t understand the nature of lightning, but they knew and feared its power. To them, lightning was the first directed-energy weapon, hurled by the gods to smite those that annoyed them. The idea of wielding such a weapon has captured imaginations ever since. The term “death ray” was coined in the late 1890s by journalists reporting about the unsubstantiated claims of a man named John Hartman, who had served as an engineer in the American Civil War. Hartman boasted that he had modified a searchlight so that it could guide electricity through the air, and that his electric gun could be set to stun or kill a rabbit 50 feet away.

Death rays became modern myths, updated versions of the bolts hurled by ancient gods, born more than a century ago at a time when scientists were puzzling over new discoveries from X-rays to radio waves, inventors were seeking new weapons of war, and storytellers were looking for thrilling new ways to entertain their audiences.

[...] Military leaders hoped new science would yield new weapons, perhaps even an ultimate weapon. Technology was advancing much faster than in the 19th century. Relativity and quantum theory were revolutionizing physics. “We have X-rays, we have heat rays, we have light rays. H.G. Wells in his War of the Worlds alludes to the heat rays of the Martians, and we may not be so very far from the development of some kinds of lethal ray which will shrivel up or paralyze human beings if they are unprotected,” wrote British Gen. Ernest Swinton in 1920.

Pulp magazines covering new science and technology proliferated, and the border between fact and fiction could be hazy. Young inventor and entrepreneur Hugo Gernsback founded the publication Modern Electrics in 1908, then sold that and in 1913 founded Electrical Experimenter, which Nikola Tesla wrote for. The inventor’s electric discoveries are still used today in short-range wireless systems, but he fell short of cracking the code on long-range wireless transmission. Still, these magazines looked toward a bright electrical future. They published speculative fiction as well, and in 1926 Gernsback launched the world’s first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories.

This new world eager for new technology and news about it was primed for someone like Harry Grindell Matthews when he arrived with plans for a death ray in 1924. Born in England in 1880, Matthews served in the Boer War, during which he grew intrigued by wireless communications.... (MORE - details)

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