Caligula’s horse’s death ray — I

Because it's the holidays, I'm reading Bill Fanning's Death Rays and the Popular Media, which proves that there are far more death ray stories out there than I'd ever dreamed, from many countries and by many more hands. Some of these death rays were purely fictional, but many others were supposedly grounded in fact. It's clear that death rays were a thing: the idea recurred so many times in so many places that it suggests that it became part of the zeitgeist, at least from the mid-1920s up until the Second World War.

One particularly interesting death ray claim was attributed to the Minister for Defence Co-ordination Sir Thomas Inskip, infamously but unfairly likened by Cato to Caligula's horse. On this occasion, Inskip is said to have

openly informed the House of Commons in August 1937 that British scientists were at work on a new weapon that would completely protect the island [of Great Britain] and its civilian population from any air attacks. According to Inskip: 'The scientists who are working on the ray are convinced that within a very few years, provided they can work unhindered, they will reach protective perfection' and that this new power will mean that 'no air fleet could invade the country; no ship could land a man; no army could march.'1

This is a bold claim, but the summary is somewhat misleading, it should be said: Inskip did not say what he is quoted as saying here, and in fact he never mentioned a 'ray' in any sense at all.

The source given is the Jamaican newspaper, the Daily Gleaner, which appears to be a reprint or summary of an article from 1 August by Victor Burnett, the Sunday Express air correspondent. But judging from the Gleaner, the words attributed to Inskip are actually Burnett's. Instead, Inskip is actually quoted by Burnett as saying:

The Research Committee is very active and has produced some very remarkable results. I can assure Sir Archibald Sinclair that the discoveries and inventions have passed a little further than he indicated.

Lord Swinton, the Air Minister, is engaged in devising methods which will give immunity to the civil population from air attacks, and a solution may be obtained in less than the eight or nine years Mr Winston Churchill thinks necessary to find it.2

This is not a verbatim quote either; rather it is a paraphrase. The closest statement from Inskip I can find in Hansard is the following from 27 July 1937, during a supply debate which was turned into an attack on Inskip's position:

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caithness [Sinclair] asked what was happening in the research committee? He will not expect me to answer that question even when I have read it in the OFFICIAL REPORT, except to tell him that the research committee is very active and has produced some very remarkable results. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will be content with that answer. Indeed he himself shows how far he is behind the stage which the research committee has reached by his recital of the matters which he hoped they were considering. I can assure him that the discoveries and the inventions have passed a little further than he indicated. But these are matters that everybody must speak of with a proper regard to secrecy.

I am aware, when I speak of secrecy, that one of my friendly critics once said of me that if I take on the veil of secrecy it is very difficult to know whether my eyes are on the ground or on the air. That is true perhaps, and I have to put up with that criticism, but nothing could be more disastrous or wrong than for me to drop even a hint at what research has attained and how much stronger we are in air defence, in consequence of its discoveries and the application of those discoveries. My mind, I can assure the right bon [sic] Gentleman opposite, is not so cluttered up with details that I am unable to consider questions of this kind. My noble Friend the Secretary of State for Air [Swinton] has devoted himself very much to this problem and has been and is engaged in devising methods of defence which I hope will secure that immunity to which my right hon. Friend [Churchill] referred, even sooner than the eight or nine years which he indicated as the period within which success might be attained.3

I've emphasised the parts which correspond most closely to Burnett's paraphrase. So again, Inskip does not mention death rays; but he does drop very broad hints about scientific 'discoveries' and 'inventions' which, in a few years, might lead to the end of the bomber menace. It appears to be members of the press which lept to the conclusion that Inskip was talking about death rays: Burnett, for example, was struck by his 'unusual optimism that if the peace of Europe could be maintained for a few more years Britain would be able to turn back the strongest of enemy air fleets'.4 It was Burnett himself who added 'I understand that most important of the discoveries tested by the by the Scientific Research Committee is a Death Ray [...] no aircraft or living thing could penetrate it and survive'.5

But Inskip's claim of impending immunity from air attacks was bold enough. Why did he make it? This was a puzzle at the time, too:

[Inskip's] announcement to Parliament also provoked the concern of a writer for Pearson's Magazine. Since most leading scientists publicly rejected the notion of a death ray, he wondered why the minister would say such a thing: 'What, then, is the ray which is hinted at by Sir Thomas Inskip? Is it one of those closely guarded secrets which only military and air experts know of, and which is still unknown to the majority of scientists?'6

In fact, the answer to the last question would seem to be 'yes'. In hindsight, it appears obvious that Inskip was hinting at the invention of radar and its integration into Britain's air defence system. As is well-known, the idea of the death ray played a key role in inspiring the idea of radar (at least in Britain; it was invented in more than one place): Arnold Wilkins came up with the latter after being asked to investigate the former. By the time Inskip spoke, in July 1937, the concept had been proved in testing at RAF Bawdsey, and planning for the operational Chain Home system was at an advanced stage (the Treasury approved funding in August). And while it was not a panacea, radar did supply a crucial piece of the air defence puzzle.

Bill is well aware of all this, but he further suggests that the confusion with death rays was made deliberately and officially, 'a deception to cover the real work going on with radar' as well as 'to reassure the public that Britain was safe from air attack in the event of another general European war'.7 I want to explore both of these ideas in a bit more detail, but as this post is already getting long I'll leave that for another day.

  1. William J. Fanning, Jr., Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876-1939: A Study of Directed Energy Weapons in Fact, Fiction and Film (Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2015), 107-8. 

  2. Daily Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica), 18 August 1937, 1. 

  3. HC Deb, 27 July 1937, vol. 326, col. 2955-6

  4. Daily Gleaner, 18 August 1937, 1. 

  5. Ibid., 1. 

  6. Fanning, Death Rays and the Popular Media, 108. 

  7. Ibid., 108. 

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