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The History Of The Real-Life Death Ray

Events | September 8, 2019

Death rays are a common trope in science fiction works, but could they be real? Source: (defensenews.com)

In science-fiction, death rays are defined as weapons that shoot beams of energy to conveniently kill the enemy without bullets or bombs. Because of this, death rays are a staple in sci-fi novels, comic books, and movies, but are death rays real? At least a few people have attempted to create a real-life death ray. Here is what we know about them.

In ancient Greece, Archimedes was said to have made a death ray that ignited the Roman boats. Source: (9csmonitor.com)

Archimedes and His Death Ray

Archimedes was a Greek inventor, mathematician, scholar, engineer, scientist, and astronomer who lived from 287 to 212 BC. During his lifetime, his homeland of Syracuse was constantly besieged by Roman invaders. That was probably why, according to written evidence from the second-century author Lucian, Archimedes created a death ray that collected and focused the Sun's energies into a single beam of heat. Aimed at the Roman ships anchored in the harbor, the Archimedes death ray could incinerate the wooden vessels and prevented the Roman navy from taking the city. In recent years, many people—including the guys on Mythbusters and students at MIT—have tried to recreate Archimedes 's death ray with only a hint of success.

Did Harry Grindell Matthews really create a death ray or was he just trying to scam the British military out of money? (The Death Ray, lobbycard, Harry Grindell Matthews, (center), 1924. Source: (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

Harry Grindell Matthews and His Mysterious Death Ray

Fast forward from ancient Greece to 1920s London. A few years earlier, at the start of World War I, the British military offered a huge cash prize to anyone who could invent a weapon that would be effective against the German zeppelins. An inventor named Harry Grindell Matthews announced in 1923 that he had developed a death ray that used electric energy waves that were powerful enough to shoot both zeppelins and airplanes out of the sky.

Naturally, the British military wanted to see the death ray in action. Strangely, and suspiciously, Matthews ignored their calls. Instead, he invited some reporters to his laboratory to watch a demonstration. With the journalists watching, Matthews used his death ray to kill the engine in a moving motorcycle and to zap a poor mouse to death. He told the reporters that his invention was capable of much more, like halting ships at sea and shooting down planes from 4 miles away. The reporters wrote about his fantastic invention, and Matthews awaited his payout from the British military. When they continued to demand their own demonstration, Matthews announced that he had sold his death ray to France. Neither the French government nor the British government ever used Matthews's death ray, and it seems likely that the invention was a hoax to collect money. 

Edwin Scott's version of a death ray was more like man-made lightning. Source: (itv.com)

Edwin R. Scott's "Human-Made Lightning Stroke"

About the same time that Harry Grindell Matthews was duping reporters into thinking he invented an effective anti-aircraft weapon, an American inventor named Edwin R. Scott was working on his own death ray. Unlike Matthews, Scott claimed that his death ray could be used as a weapon of mass destruction, although he preferred to use the less lethal-sounding "human-made lightning stroke" over the term "death ray." Scott also differed from Matthews in that he was eager to show off his invention to the U.S. military. He even offered to aim his death ray at one of the Navy's battleships. They politely declined. Like Matthew before him, Scott failed to make his death ray commercially viable. 

Guglielmo Marconi insisted his death ray be called a "peace ray". Source: (history.com)

Marconi’s Peace Ray

If the name Guglielmo Marconi sounds vaguely familiar, it is probably because he is the Italian inventor who is credited with being the father of the radio. He was one of the first to experiment with radio waves to be used as wireless communications, and thanks to him, we can all sing along to music way too loudly in our cars. In 1935, however, Marconi built a prototype of a death ray that he presented to Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator. Marconi claimed that his invention could kill people from a distance and make enemy planes drop out of the sky, but he insisted on calling it a "peace ray," because he was apparently exactly who Orwell was writing about. Still, the peace ray needed some work, and Marconi never managed work out all the bugs. On his deathbed in 1937, he lamented that his biggest regret was not perfecting his death ray.

Oops...Antonio Longoria accidentally invented a death ray. Source: (blog.modernmechanix.com)

Antonio Longoria's Accidental Death Ray

In 1934, Spanish doctor and scientist Antonio Longoria was working on a new cancer treatment when he claimed he accidentally invented a death ray. He was just trying to work out a way to treat cancer with high-frequency radiation, but what he found instead was a super-weapon that altered the blood in its victims, thus killing them. He claimed the invention could kill pigeons from 4 miles away and even killed a mouse through the walls of a thick metal box. He repeated these experiments before a group of colleagues, but immediately afterward, he destroyed the device and all of its secrets. He feared that his death ray may fall into the wrong hands, and Longoria was committed to saving lives, not taking them.

A rival of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla did a lot of work with electricity. Source: (allthatsinteresting.com)

The Genius of Nikola Tesla

One of the great minds of the 20th century, Nikola Tesla made it known that he had developed a death ray over the course of several decades and he believed it to be his greatest invention. He called his death ray a "teleforce" and scoffed at the press's use of the science-fiction term. He explained that a ray could not carry effective energy over great distances without dissipating into the air, because he might have been a genius, but he was also an insufferable pedant. To the contrary, he said, his "teleforce" could be used to kill entire armies from 200 miles away and force more than 10,000 enemy airplanes to crash. Given his track record of successful inventions, people were eager to see Tesla's death ray, but he kept curious snoops at bay by telling folks "It's just about ready.” When Tesla died in 1943, his death ray was nowhere to be found. Some believe it was confiscated by the U.S. military, but given the fact that no one's been death-rayed in the last 70 years, it's a lot more likely that it never existed in the first place.

Tags: Death Rays

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.