Humanity's Endless Quest to Invent a Death Ray: A History

What if I said the Death Star’s most deadly feature—yes, the one that rebel leader Admiral Ackbar said was “not yet operational”—was first envisioned by our planet’s very own scientist and inventor Archimedes over 2,200 years ago? You’d probably be all, “it’s a trap!”

Don’t worry, it’s not a trap, and your cruisers can definitely repel firepower of that magnitude. In fact, if you’re a fan of “Mythbusters” and/or President Obama, you may already have seen an episode, aired last December 8th, 2010, in which Obama very professorially challenges hosts Jamie and Adam to determine whether Archimedes’ death ray could have actually functioned. Obama refers to the weapon as a “solar ray” throughout, because he is adorably moderate even when it comes to fictional superweapons.

So, you may be asking, how did this ancient death ray work, how many Romans were fried by it and can I fry Romans with it too?

If you’ve read up on your death ray history, you may already know that, quite unfortunately, the Roman Empire has since fallen—very quietly, with much grace and with absolutely no impact on the world—so you can’t really attack Roman imperialists anymore. But!

If you lived in the time of Archimedes, you might want to look around for the device depicted here, before you force Socrates into a telephone booth to help you and your BFF with your history report.

The central conceit was that a concave series of mirrors could refract sunrays into one central blast of solar energy. If that blast was focused enough, it could burn holes in the vulnerable wooden hulls of enemy ships and sink them from a distance. It would be more or less the same principles of burning an ant with a magnifying glass, only not so much an early symptom of sociopathy.

So what was the verdict on whether this innovative sun-laser could have existed? The Mythbusters guys assembled hundreds of students, instructing them to aim mirrors at a target on a mock trireme. Alas, they were unable to raise the focal point to 410 degrees Fahrenheit, the necessary temperature for the sails to burst into flame. It was the third time Jamie and Adam busted the myth of Archimedes’ death ray, and the first time President Obama had a full-on public temper tantrum. He almost killed Jamie with a scythe! (A lie.)

Most historians are on Jamie and Adam’s side, claiming the death ray’s existence must always have been theoretical because Archimedes’ contemporaries never wrote, “Oh my gods, STOP THE SCROLLS! A death ray forged from Apollo’s fiery brilliance has been hewn!” Also, if the death ray had been put into use and had been effective, the Romans would’ve wanted to use it against the Greeks, who’d want to use it against the Spartans, who’d want to use it against the Thracians and so on throughout the seriously petty Ancient World. Everyone would want big ol’ death rays in their backyards and the whole history of warfare would have been totally different… if we had even survived long enough to create that history.

But the fact that its conception never led to its creation 2,200 years ago does not diminish what Archimedes had unleashed on the world. The death ray went on to capture the imaginations of engineers, scientists and inventors for millennia and many geniuses have struggled to bring it into reality.

George Lucas probably didn’t know he was directly borrowing from Archimedes’ version of the ray in his rendering of a certain superweapon that we all know and love (if “love” here means that we’d like to explode it and sing “Yub Nub” with some Ewoks in a tree village about it). If you’ll recall, when Tarkin smiles his evil grin and gives the order to blow the neutral crap out of Alderaan, several laser beams shoot from a concave bowl in the side of the space station and coalesce into one giant ray. Then Alderaan goes “BOOM!” and Princess Leia learns the downside of being a stubborn woman. (While we’re on the topic, I credit Aristotle for Jar Jar Binks because more or less everything he believed and taught was patently wrong, but you could tell his heart was in the right place.)

Part 2: A Few Thousand Years in Two Paragraphs

Anyway, forget ancient Greek analogs for Star Wars miscellanea (for now). Here I must confess that there wasn’t really much action until the Industrial Revolution. You can chalk that up to dumb Medieval times; weapons of mass destruction during this period were apparently dragons and wizards. After fumbling around in the Dark Ages for a while, Europe finally switched on the Enlightenment and scientific progress went boink.

However, a technological superweapon was still far off, perhaps because a couple of bourgeois jerks discovered that if you purposely infect items with bacterial and viral strains (a la Lord Amherst) and offer them as gifts, you can totally kill a bunch of friendly, helpful people. Europeans got a real kick out of that for a while, but after some key waves of epidemics crashed against humanity’s shore, the world hungered for an even more dramatic killswitch. Science fiction had begun to flourish in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, and people’s imaginations were boiling over with harebrained inventions. A worldwide arms race was sparked when it became clear that the future of war was not going to include old-timey cavalries and bayonets. Nations vied to invent the ultimate trump card weapon and the template for a beam resurfaced among several scientists and inventors. Just like that, the death ray was back and more coveted than ever!

Part 3: Harry ll Matthews, Sir Claims-a-Lot

Harry Grindell Matthews was the first inventor to claim to have invented the death ray. Matthews was so old school British, he fought in the Second Boer War. (That was my favorite Boer War.) Turns out his patriotism could be pretty easily bought, though, along with his credibility. He was what we in the patent business call a “dry icer” (note: this is not a real term, yet) because he made a whole ton of smoke without fire. He had previously claimed to have invented a radiotelephone, which either he or the British government bungled (it was officially labeled a “misunderstanding”), a remote controlled seleniumcell weapon that could bring down zeppelins and the first talking picture—of a 1921 interview with Ernest Shackleton. But as it happened, he was much better at saying he had invented something that A) worked and B) was original than he was at doing it. The death ray was to be his magnum opus, and in a way, it was, because it sort of permanently revealed that he was the type of guy who blows it, not shows it.

Matthews announced his invention in April 1924, claiming that he could jam magnetos from a distance using electricity. Boy journalists were all, “Tell me more, tell me more, will we use it in fights?” while girl journalists were all, “Tell me more, tell me more, could we have equal rights?” The War Office of Britain immediately contacted Matthews, but when he refused to tell them how it worked, they retracted their offer of financial support.

Matthews retaliated by saying he had an offer from France. He was more of an inventwhore than an inventor, you see. The British Air Ministry couldn’t stand the idea of France getting a hold of a death ray—that would be like your junkie brother getting the inheritance!—and they gave Matthews another shot to prove he had legitimately invented a working weapon. But he basically just showed them a bunch of magic tricks and they were all “Hey, we came here to pay you for a death ray, not to watch you cut out motors, play with light switches and presumably dance to the ‘The Final Countdown.’” Fun fact: a press release from this demonstration recounted how a ministry official had stood in front of the ray and survived. Let’s hope that was voluntary.

At that point, the High Court of London got involved and granted an injunction that forebode Matthews to sell rights to his invention without their permission. Matthews told them to go suck eggs and was off to France in May 1924, just a month after his original announcement. The French had already gone into classic “ah we deed zis first” mode, bragging that they’d had this thing called a “demon ray” lying around since the end of World War I. Their government claimed that it was “the most terrible annihilating force which the mind of man had ever conceived” and then, for extra flourish, added that the device could have utterly destroyed the German army and killed “every man, woman and animal in Germany’s cities.” Oh France, you are so hilarious! Claiming in 1924 that you had the ultimate upper hand in warfare against Germany and that only your virtue and mercy prevented you from killing them all. Let us know how World War II works out for you, will you? (Also you might want to work on a backup plan to the Maginot Line. Just a tip from your pals here in the future.)

For all their bluffs, France didn’t purchase Matthews’ death ray, and he ended up coming back to Britain in June 1924. The press went mental for him, especially after he released a documentary about his work called “The Death Ray,” which depicted a device that was nothing like the one he had shown to the War Office or Air Ministry. The British government no longer gave a Jolly Roger about this guy, and so Matthews pouted and said, “You’ll all be sorry when the U.S. buys it!”

While the States did offer him $25,000 to show off the death ray at Madison Square Garden, he was all “I… um… left it at home and stuff.” So America frowned, pounded its fist against its palm and Matthews went back to Britain where he claimed that the United States had loved it and bought it. Everyone narrowed their eyes at him and he subsequently left for America again, where he got an engineering job at the only place that would take him: Warner Brothers. No joke.

He eventually moved to Wales and after attempting to raise money with his luminophone, Sky Projector, torpedo rockets and other pieces of junk, he copped out by marrying a super-rich Polish opera singer named Ganna Walska D’Eighnhorn Fraenkel Cochran McCormick in 1938. You may wonder why this woman had so many last names, all ranging in nationality. She had been married four times, and was the first married woman to be declared “a distinct legal entity” in America—so as not to have to pay customs duties while bringing her multimillion dollar wardrobe for a visit from France. Along the way, she inherited much of her ex-husbands’ vast fortunes, totaling $125 million (that’s about two billion dollars today). She was beautiful and smart—yet their 1938 marriage announcement in Time included this depressing tidbit: “The bride went on her honeymoon alone, while the inventor rushed to his Clydach, Wales laboratory (fenced with electrified wire) to perfect an aerial torpedo.” Standing your wife up is bad enough, but standing her up on your honeymoon and letting Time magazine report on it? Dealbreaker.

Matthews joined the British Interplanetary Society towards the end of his life, hoping to work for the government. Unfortunately for him, the Brits remembered what a giant, traitorous pain in the ass he’d been, and then he died.

Part 4: The Allies and the Axis

Soon after Matthews announced that he had invented the death ray, San Francisco-based inventor Edwin R. Scott contested that claim. In September of 1924, he challenged Matthews, claiming that he and his American colleagues had finalized their own weapon wellbefore the Brit. Scott said “death ray” was a misnomer, as the invention wasn’t a ray but “rather a man-made lightning stroke” or “canned lightning.” Finally! The might of Jupiter, available in a can! Scott claimed that “an airplane in the sky [could] be hit with a searchlight and then struck with an electrical flash that [would] render it hors de combat.” (Also, the The New York Times referred to Matthews a “Britisher.” I think we should bring that back.)

Time followed up with Scott and reported: “In tests already conducted, holes were burned in two-inch steel plates at a distance of one mile. Dead trees have been fired at the same distance and animal life has been snuffed out at distances ranging from two to seven miles. Dummy planes also have been destroyed in air tests.”

Neat! Allegedly, Scott was messing around with ultraviolet light, and told military officials that he could demonstrate his work on an antiquated battleship. But alas, they wouldn’t let him sink their battleship. He fell off the map a little after that. He is remembered more for being a “protégé of no less a personage than the late Dr. Charles P. Steinmetz, wizened wizard […] in whose laboratory more than once there was manufactured a miniature thunderstorm with artificial lightning.” That’s the downside of choosing a famous wizard as your mentor: you’re going to have a lot to live up to, magic-wise. Steinmetz created a mini-thunderstorm with lightning, which means he was at least Zeus or Thor. Maybe he was even one of the weirder thunder gods, like the Japanese Ajisukitakahikone or the Hurrian Teshub!

After that, all remained relatively quiet on the death ray front until 1934, when Albert Garrette Burns, whose name is almost always omitted in the press (maybe he was… the BATMAN?!), announced to an audience in Kansas City that Clevelander Antonio Longoria (no relation to Eva!) had invented a death ray capable of vaporizing “pigeons in midair up to six blocks away.”

The press made a mockery of this, however, pointing out that they were hoping for something more along the lines of human deaths. Fair enough: it wasn’t as if pigeons were mobilizing a pigeon Axis under an unhinged pigeon dictator who hated Jewish pigeons. One Los Angeles Times reporter wrote that anyone who showed up for Longoria’s Cleveland demonstration was sure to receive a lovely portion of fried pigeon, or if the death ray failed to work, the machine itself would be on the menu. Oh, how wry the 1930s were!

Time out! While doing research in the New York Times archive, I came across an article from July 15, 1934 which was improbably entitled, “Black-Footed Penguin Dies at Aquarium; Fish With Electrical ‘Death Ray’ Arrive.” This sterling specimen of journalism reports:

the mysterious death of one of the pair of black-footed penguins in the Aquarium [took place] simultaneously with the exhibition of a marine death ray. The latter, however, was not responsible for the penguin’s demise.

I really enjoy the fact that at one time, a weird coincidence was enough of a premise for a New York Times article. You need the Huffington Post to publish that kind of crap now! Anyway, the rest of the article doesn’t really explain what a “marine death ray” is, but seems to imply that when you get a bunch of electric catfish together, they kind of automatically create one. The surviving penguin was reported to be very lonely, and was to be “consoled with a mirror.” Death rays sure did bring hard times onto our ornithological friends.

More ominously than penguin deaths (and certainly more relevantly), 1934 also saw the rise of rumors about a German engineer named Keibaus developing a “150,000 candlepower ray” for warfare. Everyone got really nervous then. Nobody wanted Germany to have an edge in warfare, especially France, whose aforementioned demon ray was, oh, how you say… totally pretendzies. That year, several French planes, en route between Paris and Warsaw and Paris and Prague, were forced to land on German territory, typically near Nuremberg, because their engines had mysteriously stopped. Tourists around Nuremberg also reported that their car’s motors had jammed without any obvious reason. Coincidence or creepy death ray experiments?! We still don’t know!

Another perceived blow to the future Allied Troops was the fact that Nobel Prize-winning Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi was working on his own “war-ray”—for Mussolini! We know pretty much nothing about the project—how far Marconi got in his experiment, how the contraption functioned, whether it was intended for offense, defense or just plain incense—because Italians just looooove their whole Omerta thing.

But it gets even more terrifying! Word got out that the Japanese were also working on a number of innovative new weapons, including—you guessed it! Called a “Ku-Go,” the Japanese death ray was to be created from microwave waves forged in a huge magnetron.

So, yikes! The Allies began to catch wind of all these proto-fascist countries using their geniuses to build electromagnetic warfare, and that wind sure smelled like scary World War Two farts.

But never fear, Allies, because as it turned out, you’re had one hell of a coil yet to shuffle off: Nikola motherfracking Tesla.

Part 5: Nikola Motherfracking Tesla

Tesla was the bestla. He just was. If you disagree, you are wrong and stupid. The maddest of all mad scientists, Tesla fathered modern commercial electricity and wireless transmission. He also made huge advancements in modern robotics, radar, computer science, ballistics and both nuclear and theoretical physics. In short: dude was the man.

He was also one spark-gap short of a circuit. An obsessive compulsive, he insisted that his hotel room numbers be divisible by three and was unable to resist the urge to calculate the cubic volumes of his meals. He was celibate “for the sake of his work,” despite the fact that girls went totally mental for him and probably threw their garters, corsets and pantaloons at him at his lab. But females were entirely unappealing to him—unless of course, we’re talking female pigeons. That’s right, unlike other pigeon-targeting death ray inventors, Tesla was unhealthily obsessed with pigeons. Sure, there is no true healthy obsession with pigeons, but even if there were, Tesla would be parsecs past it. He was most taken with a particular white pigeon and claimed she visited him daily at the Hotel St. Regis. On one of these visits, he said a light more intense than any he had produced in his laboratory sprung from her eyes and he realized she was trying to tell him that she was about to die. She did, and Tesla knew at that moment that his greatest work was finished. Whaaaaaa?! But it gets crazier! Tesla also sympathized with the women’s rights movement: he thought women would be the dominant sex in the future, even saying that the human race would be run by “Queen Bees.” Oh, ha, what a nutjob right?! Don’t you worry world, we are still solidly 77% of a man’s worth.

When Tesla threw his hat into the death ray ring, he was already in his late seventies, but he was still revered, and you better believe people listened. On July 11th, 1934, his announcement on beginning work on a charged particle beam projector called “Teleforce” made headlines in The New York Sun and The New York Times. (“BEAM TO KILL ARMY AT 200 MILES,” wrote the Herald Tribune.) The Times wrote:

Nikola Tesla, father of modern methods of generation and distribution of electrical energy, who was 78 years old yesterday, announced a new invention, or inventions, which he said, he considered the most important of the 700 made by him so far. He has perfected a method and apparatus, Dr. Tesla said yesterday in an interview at the Hotel New Yorker, which will send concentrated beams of particles through the free air, of such tremendous energy that they will bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 250 miles from a defending nation’s border and will cause armies of millions to drop dead in their tracks.

This “death-beam,” Dr. Tesla said, will operate silently but effectively at distances “as far as a telescope could see an object on the ground and as far as the curvature of the earth would permit it.” It will be invisible and will leave no marks behind it beyond its evidence of destruction.
When put in operation Dr. Tesla said this latest invention of his would make war impossible. This death-beam, he asserted, would surround each country like an invisible Chinese wall, only a million times more impenetrable. It would make every nation impregnable against attack by airplanes or by large invading armies.
But while it will make every nation, Dr. Tesla added, the death-beam by its nature could not be employed similarly as a weapon for offense. For this death-beam, he explained, could be generated only from large, stationary and immovable power plants, stationed in the manner of old-time forts at various strategic distances from each country’s border. They could not be moved for the purposes of attack.

So you see, this is why we are talking about the motherfracking man here. Tesla was distinct among would-be death ray inventors. Okay, so he was looking to invent the ultimate weapon. But he was dead set on having it be exclusively a defense weapon. He aspired to change the arms race entirely by producing weapons designed to kill war itself rather than the boring weapons we usually make, which kill people and breed wars. Sure, some think that he accidentally exploded Tunguska while testing an early prototype of Teleforce, but who hasn’t blown up large swaths of Siberia? (Also the allegation that Tesla caused the Tunguska event is pretty farfetched—it was probably an air burst from a dumb, old meteor).

The important thing is that Tesla was someone who wanted world peace and actually got off his ass to try to bring it about. Unlike you, Miss America. (Burn!)

Oh yeah, and something else that set him apart from most would-be inventors: he actually had a workable idea for the death ray’s creation. As reported in the Times article, Tesla was experimenting with these four new inventions:

1. A method and apparatus for producing rays and other manifestations of energy in free air, eliminating the high vacuum necessary at present for the production of such rays and beams.

2. A method and process for producing “very great electrical force.”

3. A method for amplifying this process in the second invention.

4. “A new method for producing a tremendous electrical repelling force.”

So basically Tesla was imagining an enormous electrostatic generator, similar in design to a Van de Graaff generator (often used in modern particle accelerators) that would be powered by a turbine. The generator could accelerate tiny particles of mercury until they became a stream of super high-powered bullets of several million volts released into a vacuum tube.

Pretty rad mockup, right? But truth be told, there was a little irony in Tesla’s approach. When Tesla said “particle,” he didn’t mean the modern scientific definition: the building blocks of atoms, your standard quarks, leptons and bosons. He meant literal small droplets of an element, in this case mercury. Surprisingly, Tesla was extremely skeptical of atomic theory, and he often sparred with other scientists and inventors in the field—although to be fair, they sparred over everything. (Gravity! The “ethers”!) So while he was working on his defensive ray, other scientists involved in the arms race leading up to World War II, like his friend Albert Einstein, were less concerned with accelerating atoms than they were with splitting them. We all know which idea came to fruition first.

And while atomic theory flourished, Tesla remained unable to produce a working prototype for his Teleforce. He repeatedly tried to sell it to the U.S. War Department, but they required a functioning model. He also tried and failed to sell it to Great Britain, assuring them that the British Isles would be impenetrable within three months. Britain chose to develop radar and spitfires instead and who can blame them? Radar and spitfires are pretty cool.

In a last ditch attempt, Tesla turned to the newly formed League of Nations and received more rejections, though the Soviet Union paid him $25,000 for a demonstration. They never received their demonstration or their deposit back, but whatever, that wasn’t exactly the first or last time Mother Russia made sketchy economic choices. Eventually, Tesla sunk into paranoia and debt. He was convinced that the U.S. government was making unsuccessful attempts to break into his hotel room, and he isolated himself until his death in January 1943. Though it was clear that he was still working on Teleforce at the time of his death, no prototype was found amongst his belongings. Whatever plans he had to develop the wondrous instrument remain a mystery.

One of his oft-repeated quotes about his death ray is somewhat chilling in hindsight, and certainly makes one wish he had lived long enough to finalize his invention:

I do not say that there may not be several destructive wars before the world accepts my gift. I may not live to see its acceptance. But I am convinced that a century from now every nation will render itself immune from attack by my device or by a device based upon a similar principle.

Rest in peace, Tesla. Seriously, you were truly the shit.

Part 6: The Actual Supermassive Weapon

Whether you think that the United States did what had to be done to end World War II or you think that Truman was a war criminal, one thing remains inarguable: on August 6th, 1945, supermassive weaponry was born.

Obviously, I am not the writer to approach the massive psychological, sociopolitical, technological, or any other –ical effects of the first nuclear attacks. I excel more in the scatological arts.

But I can approach how the atomic bomb affected the death ray. You know how video killed the radio star? The nuclear bomb blew the death ray right out of scientific possibility and solidly into science fiction. Nucleo killed the Ray-dio star.

Part 6: Science Fiction Staple

Even before World War II, the death ray was an oft-used trope in science fiction, especially after H.G. Wells’ infamous The War of the Worlds was published in 1898. The Martian invaders in Wells’ novel use Heat-Rays as their primary offensive weapon, and they sound pretty badass! Take it away, H.G.!

…In some way [the Martians] are able to generate an intense heat in a chamber of practically absolute non-conductivity. This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the parabolic mirror of a lighthouse projects a beam of light… it is certain that a beam of heat is the essence of the matter. Heat, and invisible, instead of visible, light. Whatever is combustible flashes into flame at its touch, lead runs like water, it softens iron, cracks and melts glass, and when it falls upon water, incontinently that explodes into steam.

Descriptions like that make me so glad Mars doesn’t even have much of a magnetosphere, let alone intelligent life! Unless… was Mars Attacks a documentary? I forget. Anyway, the point is that death rays were inspiring novelists as much as inventors. They sometimes even inspired novelists to write about inventors writing about death rays, as with Garrett P. Serviss’ Edison’s Conquest of Mars, published the same year as The War of the Worlds. Thomas Edison was the book’s hero, and Serviss depicts him traveling to Mars to fight Martians on their home turf with a “disintegrator ray” that Edison himself designed for the book. A passage, Mr. Serviss?

I had the good fortune to be present when this powerful engine of destruction was submitted to its first test. We had gone upon the roof of Mr. Edison’s laboratory and the inventor held the little instrument, with its attached mirror, in his hand. We looked about for some object on which to try its powers. On a bare limb of a tree not far away, for it was late fall, sat a disconsolate crow.

“Good,” said Mr. Edison, “that will do….”

Instantly there was another adjustment of the index, another outshooting of vibratory force, a rapid up and down motion of the index to include a certain range of vibrations, and the crow itself was gone — vanished in empty space! There was the bare twig on which a moment before it had stood. Behind, in sky the, was the white cloud against which its black form had been sharply outlined, but there was no more crow.

So before we get all excited by the fact that this is the first mention of what is now a science fiction necessity—the ray gun—let’s talk some trash about Thomas Edison because that’s one of my favorite things to do. Sure, Edison was a genius, and I do respect him for his contributions to science and technology. But he ended up being a serious thorn in the side of his most notable protégé. That bright-eyed young lad’s name? My boy Tesla. Funny or Die has a wonderful “Drunk History” episode about the rivalry between this pair that encapsulates the injustice Edison put to the intellectually superior Tesla. Nonetheless, I have two serious burns for you, Thomas Edison. First off, Tesla would never think to screw a bird over like that.

And while Edison was intellectually jerking himself off by getting some novelist to write an epic book about a fictional version of you who was using a fictional disintegration ray, Tesla was forgoing the same furious ego-masturbation, instead investing his energy in actually trying to make a real one.

Point being: the death ray, and its miniature variant the ray gun, was an important part of science fiction before the atomic bomb was unleashed upon the world. But after 1945, it became an entrenched scifi fixture. Star Wars has both blasters and the Death Star’s superlaser. “Star Trek” has phasers. Doom has plasma rifles. Ghostbusters has proton packs. The Aliens series, “Farscape,” the Bladerunner video game series, along with countless other scifi outlets, have pulse rifles. The Daleks in “Doctor Who” have ruby rays while that show’s Gallifrey Chancellery Guard has Staser weapons. The Independence Day aliens had some frickin’ awesome city-destroying death ray (but they didn’t have the Goldblum/Smith chemistry—their downfall). “Stargate” has Kull disruptors, zats and intars. Return to Castle Wolfenstein has Tesla Guns. Flash Gordon has a zap gun. Even comedies like Honey I Shrunk The Kids feature transmogrifying ray cannons. These are just a selection of the thousands upon thousands of examples of ray guns and death rays out there in the wonderful world of scifi.

In fact, the directed death beam in mini or macro form is now so ubiquitous that its absence in a science fiction plotline is often more meaningful than its inclusion. Shows like “Battlestar Galactica” or “Firefly” stand out because of their use of bullets and missiles rather than electromagnetic weapons. Increasingly, when science fiction creators use bullets, it’s a signal to their audience that the show takes place in our universe (yes, yes, sure, even when they have faster-than-light travel).

Part 7: The Future of the Death Ray

Though the atomic bomb dropkicked the death ray into fiction, some fragments of the idea still float around in modern inventors’ heads. One obvious example is the development of laser technology, which humans have surprisingly decided to use for good. Totally out of character for us, but hey—gotta keep it interesting! Far from exploding each other, we like to use lasers to fix our eyesight and entertain us in at planetariums when we’re high on mushrooms. It all seems to be rather pleasant—except the development of X-ray and chemical lasers in the 1980s.

This revolution was kickstarted when Ronald Reagan had his whole totally insane Strategic Defense Initiative brain wave, alternately known as the Star Wars project. More or less, Reagan thought it would be awesome if the United States had a defensive dome built around it made of… well… something or other and that maybe we could zap incoming comets, missiles and other threats with… again, you know, something or other. Reagan didn’t really provide too many specifics, though his administration’s attempt to produce a hypervelocity rail weapon would have been the closest thing to a ray gun yet (if it had been feasible). As you can see from this artist’s 1984 depiction of a ground/space-based hybrid laser weapon, inspired by the Star Wars project’s research, if we had continued down this path, we would be well-equipped to explode very valuable things like multimillion dollar satellites. See ya, Hubble Telescope!

Though you may say “hey, that’s kind of harsh since Reagan was basically following Tesla’s lead,” I’d say “no it is not,” because Tesla wanted every country to have access to his defense project, thus making war universally futile. Meanwhile, Reagan decided to chuck a bunch of gas on the Cold War fire and develop weird, dangerous lasers while spending a monster pile of money. Don’t get me wrong here; I have a lot of respect for Reagan. He was just hilarious in Bedtime for Bonzo, and it’s great he didn’t kill us all.

By far the deadliest of all death rays was discovered in the 1960s. “WAIT WHAT?” you’re saying: “Why didn’t you tell us this RIGHT AWAY?” Well, dear citizen, stop running for shelter, because humanity has nothing to do with it. I’m talking gamma-ray bursts, here, people. These incredible cosmic phenomena are the most luminous electromagnetic events in the known universe, and they could tear our solar system a whole new Uranus. If we were hit by one of these flashes, we’d all be vaporized in a hot minute. A really, uncomfortably hot minute. And actually, more like a hot millisecond. We’re talking about a flash of energy that releases as much radiation in a few seconds as our Sun will in its entire 10 billion year lifetime. We’re talking about the stuff that is forcefully ejected from supernovae as they collapse into black holes. We’re talking about God’s plasma rifle, here.

And just because we can’t wield these bad boys doesn’t mean we may not be on the receiving end of one, and that’s just the plain death ray truth.

But it’s not as if we’re just sitting around, waiting for fictional weapons and gamma ray blasts to upstage all our real life death ray glory. The 21st century has actually featured an impressive amount of progress in electromagnetic and laser weaponry, especially in the good ol’ U.S. of A. The American military uses high power microwave rays to disrupt Iraqi electronic systems. In March 2009, military manufacturing giant Northrop Grumman announced that its engineers have produced the first war-ready energy weapon: a 105-kilowatt electric laser. It’s no DL-44 blaster, but it’s powerful enough to destroy cruise missiles, artillery, rockets and mortar rounds.

And in 2009, the U.S. military gave Boeing a $36 million contract to develop a laser-equipped truck. On July 19, 2010, an anti-aircraft laser with a “Laser Close-In Weapon System” was unveiled at the Farnborough Airshow.

And then there’s my personal favorite electromagnetic weapon: the Active Denial System. The ADS is a non-lethal heat ray, engineered by the U.S. for use in Afghanistan. The idea behind the weapon was noble: it was developed for use in crowd control situations, to subdue protesters. Much like a taser, the ADS beam causes the victim to experience a jolt of quick but intense pain, immobilizing them. It was almost instantly banned though, perhaps because it could be too easily used for torture or could accidentally shoot innocent protesters. But I still derive so much pleasure from the fact that the military had the balls to call a weapon that was designed for the Afghan war the “active denial” system. So courageously on-the-nose! They might as well have named it the “we try not to think of why the holy heck we’re in Afghanistan” system.

Developing electromagnetic weaponry is expensive and requires innovative thinking— “duh!” says every scientist and inventor who has tried to develop it. But listen, you smug scientist/inventors, our new millennium has borne witness to a surge of fresh ideas about how to finally pull the death ray from the world of dreams and imagination into reality. It’s looking increasingly likely that the death ray’s 2,200-year-old journey may be coming to an end, and perhaps we can even make good on Tesla’s vision for using it to save lives instead of vaporizing them. Knowing our species—probably not! But sometimes humanity does okay and it’s not impossible this will be one of those times. And if we discover the hard way that someone has at last invented a death ray, at least we’ll find out at the speed of light.

Becky Ferreira is a comedy nerd and has recently written for Bust and Popular Science.