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:
- unnamed chemist, Bradford, 1916
- Wulle, a 'militarist' Reichstag deputy, claimed that Germany had a death ray. Presumably Reinhold Wulle
- Grammachikoff, Soviet Union
- unnamed engineer, Paris
- 'a German at the radio station at Nauen'
- unnamed inventor, France
- Bernays Johnson, United States
- Philipoff, editor and publisher of Scientific Review, Soviet Union
- unnamed, Tunbridge Wells
- unnamed man, Manchester
- Dr T. F. Wall, electrical engineer, Sheffield University, 1924
- Edwin R. Scott, San Francisco, 1925
- Henry Fleur, San Francisco, 1936
- '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
- R. Russell Clarke, barrister and Room 40 cryptographer, 1917
- Coxhead, Maidenhead, 1933
- Ulivi, Italy, 1913
- unnamed corporal, (British) 4th Army, c. 1916-9 (The Times, 14 October 1937, 14)
- Prior, Britain, 1924
- Raffe, Britain, 1924
- unnamed German inventor, represented by British engineer John H. Hamill, 1924
- Nikola Tesla, United States, 1934
- Dr Alberto Longoria, United States, 1934
- Henri Claudel, France, 1935
- 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. ), 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.