The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
1920'S STYLE DEATH RAYS
People love to get scared. Safely. They love haunted houses and roller coasters. They love vampires, and werewolves, and hordes of zombies. They can't enough of real world horrors either, as long as they're unlikely or happening to someone else far away. Murders and plane crashes and ebola. The Rapture and Y2K and nuclear winter.
Or, as in 1924, Death Rays.
24/7 news coverage had yet to be invented, but for a few months newspapers and magazines made a thick spread of the few facts available, expressed mainly in blaring headlines and hysterical editorials of the latest, greatest, ultimate, civilization-dooming but maybe weak, useless, or downright fake wonder of modern technology. Major newspapers like The New York Times devoted dozens of articles to Death Rays but no one in the smallest towns could escape the horror thanks to the many syndicators of news and photos like the Associated Press and the International News Service. Time magazine, then only a year old but already gaining a reputation as the go-to source for short pieces on major topics, devoted three articles to rays in 1924 and revisited it the next year. The pop-sci magazines marveled about it but so did magazines from The Rotarian to The Indian Review to The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality to Railway Carmen's Journal and The Messenger of Peace. You couldn't escape it. And that, after all, is the point of a Death Ray.
Let Time, the prime summarizer, set the scene, from its April 21 article titled "Invisible Death." (All dates are 1924 unless indicated.)
H. Grindell-Matthews, inventor of a method of controlling motorboats at sea by wireless, for which the British Government awarded him $125,000, has perfected a principle by which airplane or other engines can be stopped in full operation through an invisible ray. He has demonstrated its efficacy with but a quarter kilowatt of power on engines in the laboratory, and needs only to strengthen its current for operation at a greater distance to bring airplanes in flight to a full stop and send them crashing to earth. No insulation is proof against this weapon, for if the carburetor were sufficiently protected, the ray could be so intensified as to set the wing fabric afire. Said he: "I believe that in the near future machine guns will be found only in museums."
Harry Grindell Matthews had no hyphen in his name, but that's okay since his name wasn't Harry Grindell Matthews either. In 1916, he had it legally changed to Harry Grindell Grindell, a name he never used again except when forced to by his many court cases. Eccentric? To a fault. A real inventor? Absolutely. He was a pioneer in radio telephony and created a sound-on-film process that later got him hired by the Warner Brothers in Hollywood. The British government took him very seriously, except when they were denouncing him as a fraud while simultaneously warning against selling his inventions to foreign powers. Their investigations of his claim were so prejudiced, bungled, and contradictory that whatever truth lay behind them couldn't possibly emerge. Only headlines.
ELECTRIC RAY CAN PARALYZE ARMY, CLAIM
Grindell Matthews Tells of Possibilities of His Latest Invention
CAN CONTROL ITS POWER
Briton, In Interview, Gives Details of His Invisible "Ray of Destruction"
You hardly needed to read the article in those days; the headlines, plural, told you all you needed to know. Still, those details from Matthews must have popped any eyes who bothered to read on.
My ray can create an atmosphere in which nothing can exist, which will ignite anything inflammable or explosive and even[,] with sufficient electrical energy, melt metal or even glass....
It is an invisible power as destructive as a flash of lightning - a ray of light along which an electric current travels which is constant and controllable. My invention is purely a weapon of warfare, both from an offensive and defensive point of view. ...
In future air raids electric rays will sweep the skies instead of searchlights. That means that any aeroplane or Zeppelin coming within the barrage would be brought down much more effectively than by machine gun fire. ...
But while it is essentially a war weapon, at the same time it can be made a weapon of peace, inasmuch as if expectations are realized, war will become unthinkable, as a power that had warlike intentions would hesitate before embarking on war with a country whose strength in "invisible" armament was known.
Not a word of this was true. Should that matter? Every inventor hyped his [always his; I know of no counterexamples from this era] new marvel beyond any possible technological reality. Matthews made these claims almost simultaneously with WWI ace of aces Captain Eddie Rickenbacker talking of the inevitable future of "Flying Autos Within 20 Years." Did he believe himself is the better question, and that's unanswerable. He operated on a shoestring budget at all times - that $125,000 from the British government Time mentioned was awarded days before the war ended when war funds instantly evaporated. Since then he had been in a constant search for wealthy backers, most of whom had at one time or another learned to their financial cost that any claim from any inventor had to be reduced by 99% to conform to current reality. Of course Matthews was hyping the product. But what if...
THREE NATIONS SEEK 'DIABOLICAL RAY'
France and Britain Make Offers and America Is Reported Interested
HE REJECTS BRITISH OFFER
This Was £1,000 Down With Demand for Further Tests - Leaves for Plane in Haste
LONDON EXPERTS SKEPTICAL
Doubt Matthews Can Produce the Results He Claims and Want a Full Demonstration
Could the news get scarier? Easily. That was one of five[!] articles The New York Times ran that day. Another reported:
"News has leaked out from the Communist circles in Moscow," says a London Times correspondent, that behind Trotsky's recent war-like utterance lies an electromagnetic invention, by a Russian engineer named Grammachikoff for destroying airplanes.
"The experiments, it is stated, began last August and their apparatus has since been improved with the aid of German technical experts....
"According to the same report these developments explain why Rosenholtz, Commander of the Soviet Air Service, proposed at the conference on March 26, to curtain the activity of the air fleet, because the invention is considered to have rendered a large air fleet unnecessary for the purpose of the defense."
Commies with Death Rays! Those who complain that modern cable news reports on rumors without bothering to get facts first will not comforted by the headlines appearing in other papers on May 28 and 29.
FRANCE MAY GET DEATH RAY IS THREAT
FRENCH FAIL TO GAIN CONTROL OF DEATH RAY
U.S. ENTERS RACE FOR DEATH RAY SECRET
AMERICA FAR AHEAD WITH DEATH RAY EXPERIMENTS
Alleviating fears never makes quite as good a story as stoking them, but that last headline is telling. Responses to Matthews' Death Ray were twofold and simultaneous. "There's no such thing as a Death Ray" and "Mine is better."
Nobel Prize winner Fritz Haber:
"DEATH RAY" IS DECLARED FAKE
German Scientists Say That Claim of British Is Founded on Miracles
Johns Hopkins physicist Dr. R. H. Wood:
'POOH POOHS' BRITISHER ON VIOLET RAYS CLAIMS
American Expert on Light Says "Grindell-Matthews" Makes Bogus Assertion About Experiments
Dr. T. F. Wall of Sheffield University (although he was often confused with F. J. Wall)
English Scientist Tells of Discovery of Another Death Ray
Marcel Moreau, Jr.
CALIFORNIAN IS DIABOLICAL RAY DISCOVERER, TOO
Humble Mechanic Demonstrates Ray with Terrific Heat
Which column to put that last headline in? Pride that Americans can match the greatest discoveries of foreign savants or fear that the power to end humanity was within the reach of any humble mechanic?
Editorial writers couldn't decide, either, coming down on all sides of the issue, often within the same paragraph. Under the heading "A Diabolic Ray," the Brooklyn Daily Eagle opined:
When our first sense of horror, in contemplating the potentialities of such devices, has passed away, we cannot help but be reminded that although man, in every war in which he has engaged, has produced new weapons of destruction, in the same measure he has minimized suffering. ... If a man must be destroyed by such powerful agencies as Grindell-Matthews proposes, it is far better that death comes to him promptly and painlessly.
Under "The Death Ray," the editor of the East Liverpool [OH] Evening Review also saw highs and lows.
The theory is that the new ray will be directed at the hostile planes as they approach, either from the ground or from flying defense planes, whereupon the enemies' engines will stop and their planes will crash to the ground in flames. ... But the ray also is deadly to living things coming within its range. It might be used as a machine gun is now, "spraying" the enemy with invisible and inaudible death, laying low an advancing column of men at a distance of many hundred yards, with the operator safely hidden and the enemy never knowing what struck them. ... The "next war" then, will be a lovely affair, will it not? Only somehow it seems considerable less glorious to be struck down by a magical ray than by a bullet or a spear. In fact, the glory steadily fades from warfare with the development of scientific slaughter. And there is hope in that fact.
Could it all become more deliciously terrifying? Oh, yes. The Lebanon [PA] Daily News reacted to a further development with pithy horror:
With all England shivering for fear France will get Matthews' death ray and thus gain military supremecy of the world, Ernest Welsh, a Hull [England] inventor, has announced discovery of a "death rocket" which will fly higher than any airship and pick airplanes out of the air and incinerate them.
“I am anxious to back my rocket against the death ray,” Welsh said. “I can protect towns andcities with the rockets, a barrage fire of which make the sky a literal sheet of flame.”
The headline simply read “Awful! Awful!”
Was there any proof at all of the Death Ray's existence? The very best. Matthews made a short documentary film about it. The New York Times proclaimed its wonders on November 3.
"DEATH RAY" SHOWN VIVIDLY IN A MOVIE
H. Grindell-Matthews Operates His Machine, Killing a Rat and Blowing Up a Motorcycle
That was again a high point and a low. Critics of course accused him of faking the scenes - the film's director, Gaston Quiribet, was a veteran known for his series of Q-riosity films featuring trick photography. Nor were laboratory antics a match for walls of flame in the sky. A large problem was context. Almost all theaters played a barrage of short films, newsreels, cartoons, and other filler between movies. A few minutes of a potential super-weapon trivialized itself by being second billed to the latest mindless entertainment of the day. In Lebanon, PA, the Theatorium played it alongside The Fighting Sheriff, starring “the College-Bred Western Star” Bill Cody, and “Fables and Topics of the Day.” And in Wilmington, OH, the "New Diabolic Ray That Will Revolutionize Warfare" seemed overmatched by Harold Lloyd's "Cyclone of Comedy."
By then death rays had thoroughly permeated popular culture. Death rays could be found in the plots of no fewer than three Hollywood movies, i.e. deliberately fictional ones: Laughing at Danger, Story Without a Name, and Fools in the Dark, all released before the end of 1924, although they meandered through theaters in small towns for the next several months. Science fiction didn’t yet exist as a separate genre but Weird Tales, the magazine, did. Probably the first of the modern death ray yarns was by Ralph Parker Anderson, whose “The Purple Light,” appeared there in the November issue. Proof that everyone in America had at least heard of death rays appeared bizarrely in Dr. W. A. Evans’ “How to Keep Well” column. Mrs. G. S. wrote in to ask about the dangers of removing her tonsils as an adult, a sensible concern in those days, but finished off by saying, “I saw recently in your column something about removing tonsils by the death ray.” The good doctor tiptoed delicately around addressing that directly, but Mrs. S. may have been decades ahead of her time. Imagine what a boon to surgery a minutely focusable death ray could be. Or she could have been an idiot. Many with formal titles and degrees provably were. The world had gone mad. There would be no turning back.
I know of only one article that purports to be directly by Grindell Matthews himself, appearing in the August 1924 issue of Popular Radio under the title "The New Death-Dealing 'Diabolic Rays'." My hunch is that it was ghostwriten or at best reprinted from another magazine, but that's supposition. It's the closest to a direct statement on the background technology of his work.
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