Here are a couple of interesting but spurious claims about new weapons from 1939, which I've come across in my recent reading.
The first is from the Melbourne Argus of 19 January 1939. It's very brief, no more than a simple statement that the Soviet Union has announced that it has developed a death ray. This prompted a response on 20 January (p. 10) from T. H. Laby, Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. (I attended many a physics seminar in the Laby Theatre, back in the day.)
"Over and over again claims have been made to the discovery of a death-ray, and there has never been any substance in them," he said. The whole electromagnetic spectrum, from the longest wireless waves to the shortest X-rays, is known to physicists, and none of them could be used as death-rays at any intensity at which it is possible to produce them.
Laby allowed that X-rays and sound rays (the latter not, of course, electromagnetic waves but pressure waves) could in theory be used to kill, but not in practice. He was right to be sceptical of the Soviet claim, although there is always the possibility of something new coming along to confound elderly but distinguished scientists (as actually happened with the laser in 1960). And the report from Moscow was so sketchy that all he has to go on is the term 'death ray', which as I've said before doesn't mean its primary effect was to kill directly. As for the report itself, who knows whether the Soviets actually made this claim officially, or whether it was garbled or not. But in such uncertain times, a little misdirection about defence capabilities couldn't hurt a friendless country.
The second dubious claim was made by H. G. Wells in an article for the London Daily Chronicle of 6 March 1939, which was reprinted in his Travels of a Republican Radical in Search of Hot Water. Having returned to Britain from a visit to Australia, Wells notes that
War does not come. That is due to the spreading realisation that the catastrophic anticipations of London, Paris, Berlin and indeed most places, being turned into gigantic holocausts, shambles, heaps of ruin and so forth have been much exaggerated.1
I'd agree with Wells that there was such a 'spreading realisation', but the main reason he gives for this is surprising: it's the invention of the 'air-mine', which seems to be carried by balloon:
The air-mine is a small, unobtrusive floater carrying a high explosive charge, detonators and suitable entanglements, that can be set to drift at any height. And it just drifts about with the wind. It is not merely unobtrusive but, as armaments go today, relatively inexpensive. You can send these things up in shoals, in clouds, in curtains, and aerial mine-sweepers have yet to be invented.2
I don't know where Wells got this from. As far as I know, the British had no such device (although experiments were carried out with something similar during the war, at Frederick Lindemann's insistence). Maybe it was a rumour put about by somebody official in order to boost confidence in air defence? If so, it looked like it worked on Wells, though it hardly made him look on the government with favour:
The fact remains that it is possible to cancel out the air, and that this present waste on excavations, tin-pot shelters and the like is either bare-faced jobbery or patent imbecility ....3
So there are two odd claims, both false and (maybe) both propaganda. Both certainly forgotten today.
H. G. Wells, Travels of a Republican Radical in Search of Hot Water (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1939), 68-9. ↩
Ibid., 69. ↩
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