DEATH RAYS AND LIFE RAYS

Practical Electrics, August 1924

I'm using 1893, the year of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, as my arbitary starting date, but I could stick my hand into a perpetual calendar and come up with a half dozen just as good. Nice round 1900, the year that Max Planck defined the quantum, is an excellent alternative. Perhaps better is the year 1895, a true unforeseeable skittering into the unknown, the year in which Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays. (Those of you without easy access to an umlaut font can spell it Roentgen.)

 

Flight had been predicted and discussed for decades; the telephone and telegraph emerged out of mechanical signaling devices; electricity was known to the ancients. X-rays seemed to pop up out of nowhere, unexpected, unimagined. Even the name is perfect; despite attempts to call them Röntgen Rays, sucessful in many languages, "X," a standard scientific modifier for anything as yet unknown, stuck like glue in English and elsewhere. Why not? Nothing could be more symbolic of the unknown, of the mysterious and wondrous lurking in scientific acheivement, than these rays that could reveal the inside of your body. No wonder Röntgen was the first recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physics. (History reveals that others doing similar experiments had seen similar effects earlier; Röntgen gets the credit because he published first. The world learned about X-rays in early 1896. Does that make 1896 a better arbitrary starting point? Arbitrarily, no.)

 

Rays were already known to science, to be sure. Sunlight itself was the most obvious of rays, literally visible as such, or at least apparently so. William Herschel, the astronomer already famous for the discovery of Uranus, had discovered infrared radiation in 1800 with ultraviolet radiation quickly following the next year after Johann Wilhelm Ritter looked at the other end of visible light. Scientists feverishly explored Hertzian waves, what was soon called radio, after Heinrich Hertz demonstrated them in 1887.

 

That frenzy paled before the reaction to X-Rays. A device that could see inside the body blew the minds of the Victorian mindset already offended and excited by a mere exposure of an ankle. X-Rays had endless possibilities for good and for evil, all of them exploited by doctors, quacks, photographers, moviemakers, writers, inventors, and pundits long before any true understanding of the new phenomena was remotely possible.

Poster advertising Violet Ray machine

Telling the sincere but wrong researchers from the out-and-out quacks was next to impossible. Sometimes people were better off using a fake machine that did nothing than a real x-ray machine operated without shielding or proper dosages and quite capable of causing hideous cancers. Making it doubly difficult to tell the good with the bad, rays of any kind quickly became the buzzword of the day, a universal panacea that helped any disease from A to Z. Violet ray machines were advertised in all the tinkerer magazines, finding there the perfect audience to find machines a superior road to health than pills and nostrums.

 

The scale of horror exhibited in the Great War, the war to end wars, tantalizedinventors who either wanted to contribute to weapons too horrible to use or too unstoppable not to. A ray that would kill at a distance seemed to serve both purposes.

Harry Grindell Matthews got the most publicity for a death ray, first in Britain in 1923 and then on a trip to America in 1924. Newspaper headlines screamed about Death Rays, and also about Diabolical Rays, as on that Practical Electrics cover. Governments raged and screamed, banned them, derided them, and claimed they had their own, all at the same time. Governments and their responses to threats are the one constant in a world that otherwise changes daily.

 

At almost the same time, though, the death ray got trivialized into the ray gun, a prop for sci-fi heroes in pulps, comic strips, and movies.

 

Harry Grindell Matthews death ray test, 1925

DEATH RAYS AND LIFE RAYS

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

 

1. DEATH RAYS AT THE MOVIES

 

50 - count 'em - 50 death ray movies from the Golden Age.

 

2. X-RAYS AND THE YELLOW KID

 

Richard Outcault used the latest marvel as commentary in the first famous comic strip.

 

3. RÖNTGEN’S CURSE

 

Only a few months after the discovery of X-rays, Sir C. H. T. Crosthwaite plumbed the terror that the public felt at a devise that could see through flesh.

 

4. The X-RAY FIEND

 

Just as Crosthwaite exploited the public's fear, George Allen Smith exploited the comic aspexts of revealing rays in this 1897 movie.

 

5. ARCHIMEDES' DEATH RAY

 

Did Archimedes actually invent a death ray? The silent Italian epic Cabiria might make you believe.

 

6. THE INVISIBLE RAY

 

Arthur B. Reeve wrote Houdini's robot movie, the first book with a death ray, and this detective story using rays as a stealth weapon, with an Introduction.

 

7. THE INTRIGUE: FIRST MOVIE RAY GUN

 

A ray gun is a hand held death ray, with this movie the first to scale one down.

 

8. 1920s STYLE DEATH RAYS

 

Nothing shook the world more than the announcement that Death Rays were real and would be sold to the highest bidder.

 

9. CHANDU THE MAGICIAN

 

Death ray? Villain bent on world domination? Images of cities burning? This 1932 movie has it all.

10. SUPERMAN VS. DEATH RAYS

How super was Superman? He could punch death rays out of the sky!

 

11. SHERIFF OF BULLET VALLEY

 

Donald Duck chases rustlers in the ultramodern West.

 

12. X-RAYS - EXPOSING THE UNKNOWN!

Johnny Powers learns the history and uses of x-rays in this comic from General Electric's Adventures in Electricity series.

With an unfortunate lack of actual human corpses as proof of concept, death rays were a nine day wonder. Writers never forget. Death rays passed over into the pulp magazines, comic strips and comic books, movies and television. I just can't feel safe without my trusty six-ray in my hand, said the Space Cowboy. I'm sure you know where it's at.

EK

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    Practical Electrics, August 1924