Cabiria (1914) poster

Death rays were popular throughout the 20th century, but their conceit goes much farther back. Action at a distance – the separation of soldier from target – can be pushed back as far as the first monkey throwing the first rock and taken through a logical course from spears to arrows to catapults to muskets and rifles. Each of these weapons had a potentially fatal flaw. They were finite and physical. Spears were heavy and could only be thrown once. Worse, a thrown spear could be tossed back at you. Other projectile weapons had similar limitations.  From classical times, the dream weapon discarded the mundane physical intermediary. Point and kill. Over and over again.


The first weapon to capture this dream appears to be Archimedes’ heat ray. The always unreliable fantasist and satirist Lucian of Samosota credited Archimedes with the power to set ships afire. Later authors embellished this bare detail not confirmed by any contemporary until a small miracle of ingenuity emerged as a set story. By the twelfth century Tzetzes of Byzantium, no relation to the fly, had a complete narrative at his fingers.


Archimedes constructed a kind of hexagonal mirror, and at an interval proportionate to the size of the mirror, he set similar small mirrors with four edges, moving by links and by a kind of hinge, and made the glass the centre of the sun’s beams … So after that, when the beams were reflected into this, a terrible kindling of flame arose upon the ships, and he reduced them to ashes a bow-shot off (Chiliades, 2.109-123).


Giovanni Pastrone’s Italian epic Cabiria, released at lengths from two to three hours in 1914, contained a five-minute scene featuring the ancient Archimedes called into the losing battle against the Romans at the end of second Punic War, shown below. Desperate to stave off the Roman battle fleet, Archimedes putters in his workshop until inspiration strikes. A simple grid of mirrors reflecting the sun causes a piece of paper to be set on fire. In no time he directs the construction of a gigantic mirror array, neither hinged nor apparently focusable, an odd omission from a filmmaker. Hugeness is sufficient. Several times larger than the tiny figures at its base, the mirror shoots off blinding rays that strike the viewer as much as the ships; in modern 3-D this effect would have audiences leaping out of their seats. The Roman fleet burns like matchsticks.


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