The death ray men

A few articles have been appearing in the British press over the last few days about Harry Grindell Matthews, who (among many other things) claimed in 1924 to have invented a death ray. There's no actual news attached to these stories, as far as I can tell, other than the fact that a new biography of the man has just come out (Jonathan Foster, The Death Ray: The Secret Life of Harry Grindell Matthews). In them, and presumably in the book, Grindell Matthews is portrayed as an unrecognised scientific genius who will now hopefully get his due. While he's certainly a fascinating figure, and one who pops up in my thesis, I think he was another of those inventors who was as much showman as scientist, someone who claimed to have invented many amazing things but which somehow rarely seem to have resulted in a finished product.

The death ray itself is a good example of this. It was claimed to be an electromagnetic weapon which could kill over long ranges, or explode gunpowder, or stop an internal combustion engine. The last ability was key to the possible use of the death ray as an anti-aircraft weapon, and this is what most press attention at the time focused on. There was a press campaign waged on Grindell Matthews' behalf which clamoured for the government to acquire this weapon for Britain. Officials from the Air Ministry were given a demonstration, but were unimpressed. The government was not entirely uninterested, and even offered him a thousand pounds for a successful test under their own conditions. But Grindell Matthews lost patience and hopped over to Paris to hawk the death ray there. He came back to Britain, made a film with Pathé called The Death Ray, and eventually gave up and went to America.

This sounds a lot like charlatanism. Grindell Matthews claimed much for his invention, but was reluctant to submit it to reasonable scrutiny, even when offered when more than fair compensation for his time. On the other hand, the Wright brothers, for example, had been just as suspicious when trying to sell their flyers to the world's militaries, and ended up not making a whole lot of money from their inspiration and perspiration. So such behaviour wasn't unprecedented. On the other other hand, the reason why the Wrights didn't profit fully from their invention of flight was that other people duplicated it, refined it, improved it and marketed it. If Grindell Matthews was just a bad businessman, then why didn't a practical death ray ever appear from somebody else's lab?

It certainly wasn't because nobody else was trying. Here's a (partial) list of others who claimed to have invented a death ray before 1939:

  1. unnamed chemist, Bradford, 1916
  2. Wulle, a 'militarist' Reichstag deputy, claimed that Germany had a death ray. Presumably Reinhold Wulle
  3. Grammachikoff, Soviet Union
  4. unnamed engineer, Paris
  5. 'a German at the radio station at Nauen'
  6. unnamed inventor, France
  7. Bernays Johnson, United States
  8. Philipoff, editor and publisher of Scientific Review, Soviet Union
  9. unnamed, Tunbridge Wells
  10. unnamed man, Manchester
  11. Dr T. F. Wall, electrical engineer, Sheffield University, 1924
  12. Edwin R. Scott, San Francisco, 1925
  13. Henry Fleur, San Francisco, 1936
  14. 'Professor Anthony -- an M.A., M.D., D.Sc., Hon. Professor of Natural Science and Philosophy, and holder of degrees in English Botanic Medicine', 1937
  15. R. Russell Clarke, barrister and Room 40 cryptographer, 1917
  16. Coxhead, Maidenhead, 1933
  17. Ulivi, Italy, 1913
  18. unnamed corporal, (British) 4th Army, c. 1916-9 (The Times, 14 October 1937, 14)
  19. Prior, Britain, 1924
  20. Raffe, Britain, 1924
  21. unnamed German inventor, represented by British engineer John H. Hamill, 1924
  22. Nikola Tesla, United States, 1934
  23. Dr Alberto Longoria, United States, 1934
  24. Henri Claudel, France, 1935
  25. Prof. Harry May, Britain, 1936

1-14 are from E. H. G. Barwell, The Death Ray Man: The Biography of Grindell Matthews, Inventor and Pioneer (London, New York and Melbourne: Hutchinson & Co., n.d. [1943]), chapter 16; 15 and 16 are from David Zimmerman, Britain's Shield: Radar and the Defeat of the Luftwaffe (Stroud: Sutton, 2001), 45-7. The others are sourced as indicated. The dates given are usually when the claim was made public, though in some cases it's when the invention took place. Some of these are no doubt duplicates -- Barwell doesn't give many details in most cases -- on the other hand, there are no doubt many more names still to be found. In any case, it's clear that a death ray was much sought after in both Europe and America in the 1920s and 1930s. And if there was anything to it, you'd think that one of these inventors would have produced a working example, instead of just a mass of press clippings.

The only other reason I can think of for the failure of the death ray is that while it might have been feasible to make a small-scale weapon which worked over a distance of a few metres, the inverse-square law means that the energy required to achieve the same effects over a useful range -- hundreds or thousands of metres -- would be on the order ten thousand to a million times greater. That would require massive banks of capacitors or something, perhaps not useful for a battlefield weapon, though less ridiculous for an area defence weapon, maybe. At any rate, as I've seen no credible evidence that any death ray was convincing enough to any government to get beyond a prototype, I tend to believe that their inventors were at best deluded, at worst (and more likely) fraudulent.

So why was there such interest in death rays? Most of the contemporary accounts seem to view them not just as another, more efficient means of killing people, as the name implies, but as an anti-aircraft weapon. That is, as a solution to the problem of the bomber, one which promised to be completely effective. It's no wonder people wanted a death ray to exist, then. And also no wonder that con men came along to try and take advantage of them.

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18 thoughts on “The death ray men

  1. Lester

    Fascinating once again.

    But surely it was obvious, even at the time and even to the most wishful-thinking-inclined, that the inverse square law will always get you?

    (The back of the common envelope can solve a lot of these problems very quickly, I think. I’ve met former-Russian scientists who use “we saw a real anti-tank laser in action in 1989″ to test their audience’s scientific literacy and bullshit susceptibility, which was interesting, but easily defeated with only a simple pencil and Physics O-level. A fascinating conversation resulted once I’d passed their exam…)

  2. Erik Lund

    Things are actually a little more complicated because the death-ray was supposed (by its more sophisticated proponents) to produce sparking in spark plugs. In the 1920s, the reciprocal problem with spark plug interference in aircraft radios was becoming an increasingly well-known and serious operational problem, while engine designers were becoming increasingly concerned with premature detonation (such as might be caused by untimely exogenous sparking) as a limit on aeroengine performance.
    The idea of pointing a radio station at the sky and producing sparks in equipment designed to spark, thereby wrecking all the piston engines up there is a little more provocative than a death ray. After all, that’s what radio stations were already doing.
    And since spark plug shields were needed anyway for all kinds of reasons, why not look at claims to have produced novel electromagnetic effects that might, afterall, be second-order phenomena in the spark plugs themselves? It could hardly be more mad-scientish than that other “solution” to the premature detonation problem, the Napier Sabre.

  3. Erik Lund

    Sabre! Nomad! Deltic! Why does Steampunk get all the press when there’s this Gastech coolness just lying around waiting for an imagination to pick it up?

  4. JDK

    As I’m sure we all know, the death ray experiments led to RDF, (radar) which I suppose is a way of getting the inverse square law to work with you.

    Like the stun gun and galactic credits, death rays are a kind of ‘meta-invention’ – everyone knows what they are, they just don’t exist! Fertile fields for charlatans, but also a way for getting funding for a more odd sounding invention that did work – RDF.

    As to the Wrights, all fair comment. I think their combination of scientific-based endeavour and awareness of their own achievement was compromised by their moral and religious based arrogance, meaning that they were a pain to deal with and expected people to pay big money and take their word for their offer, up front. It wasn’t long before they’d under-estimated progress and were over-estimating what they had to offer – quite the case study, IMHO. Meanwhile, as Brett’s said, others just got on with it and left them behind. Their litigiousness directly crippled US aviation for about a decade – as much against them as their first flight achievement was for them.

  5. Chris Williams

    Well to be fair, they were litigious precisely because people were nicking their invention. Their failure to negotiate properly might count against one of the utter genius things that they did, but to have it counter balance all three (control in roll, theorising the propellor, learning to be pilots) seems a bit harsh.

    As for Napiers, Eric, have you ever read LK Setwright’s _The Power To Fly_? His homage to the Nomad is a fine bit of prose.

  6. Post author

    Lester:

    Apparently not, it seems not to have cropped up very often. J. B. S. Haldane said something similar in a critique, but not many others did that I’ve come across. Of course, half the so-called inventors had probably never heard of the inverse-square law …

    Erik:

    Yes, it’s not that silly, in that context. But the inventors were usually talking about more than a subtle induction of sparks at a distance. There was the ability to kill animals (not by simply zapping them), for example. On the one hand, Grindell Matthews’ original experiment is described by Barwell as producing a sort of electrical ray, but then in a riposte to Lord Birkenhead he explicitly states that it’s an electromagnetic, between x-rays and UV, and would have a maximum range of 5-8 miles. Other rays seem to be microwave or radio frequency and so on. There’s no consistency. And besides, most of these people published in the popular press, not in the scientific literature — there’s no need for them to be particularly scientifically plausible. So while you can pick some threads out and say there was some plausibility there in contemporary engineering terms (and T. F. Wall would be interesting to explore for that), I don’t think that explains the popularity of the idea.

    JDK:

    And there’s a direct connection between the death ray and RDF, too: Harry Wimperis was one of the Air Ministry’s observers of Grindell Matthew’s setup in 1924, and it was he who asked Watson-Watt in 1935 to see if there really was anything to the possibility of a death ray …

  7. j. del col

    The electromagnetic pulses of nuclear detonations achieve the same result as the proposed death-rays. They will destroy the electronic components on aircraft. Obviously, their other effects are much worse, but the USAF did spend a lot of money trying to come up with effective ways to ‘harden’ aircraft against such EMP effects.

  8. JDK

    Dear Chris, I’m no expert on the detail of the Wrights – 1903-1914, or patent law, but it’s unarguable that they did manage to cripple the opportunity for best and brightest in the US – meaning their nation went from world leader to also ran in just over a decade, essentially thanks to them; while everyone else got on with it, AFAIK, patent-legally. The resulting company of their main litigation – Curtiss-Wright – always reminded me of two heavyweight boxers held up by each other in exhaustion in the ring.

    I’m wary of the term ‘genius’ and while their technical achievement which netted Dec 17 1903, they weren’t alone – other also were getting there in terms of inventing the aeroplane. If they hadn’t existed, it wouldn’t have halted progress – and their direct influence in the era is almost always over-estimated as most disregard their secrecy and litigation. (Not that detracts from what they did achieve, to be fair.)

  9. I Davies

    Reference the plausibility of Grindell Mathews’ “Death Ray” and almost a first hand account of the ability of the instument to interupt the spark on an internal combustion engine.

    As my family were neighbours to HGM, north of Craig-Cefn-Parc, my mother has recollections of him jawing with her grandfather around the kitchen table. Foster interviewed my great aunt as part of his research and she and I went to a talk given by him, to promote the launch of his book on Grindell Mathews, last Friday (3rd April 2009).

    During an entertaining hour, he relayed one story of how people driving their cars past his house, on their way to/from Ammanford, reported experiences of their cars cutting out, for no apparent reason.
    (Is was known that a wing of his isolated property was used as a laboratory).

    When talking to my mother later, I repeated several of the ‘dits’ from Foster’s talk, but whe I mentioned the above, she said she could remember her grandfather coming home from Tor Clawdd (Mathews’ house) and excitedly telling her of what he had just witnessed – the cars being stopped! I would guess that this happened @ 200-300 yards, from aerial photographs of the house.

    What was not conveyed during the talk was the suspicion the local community generally had about him during the thirties and forties and that he was by enlarge ostracised, primarily because of portrayals of him as a the architypal ‘mad scientist’ with scary machines (Think of Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future crossed with Flash Gordon) .

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