Phasers, lasers, masers, disruptors, blasters, pulse rifles, plasma cannons, and concussion beams—call it what you will, the directed energy weapon has become a staple element of the science fiction and fantasy genre. Considering the sheer variety of devices, whether powered by mystical energies or hard science, most names are inappropriate to describe the concept as a whole. The term "death ray" seems to be the most apt, in that it conveys the destructive force of such a weapon whilst remaining ambiguous enough not to limit its design. The concept of the weapon is surprisingly old, having its origins in early mankind's attempts to rationalize the natural world.
The humble lightning bolt provided the original inspiration for the beam of destructive energy that characterizes the death ray. Anyone who has witnessed a lightning storm will appreciate the intense effect it has on the psyche. It is easy to imagine how such an impressive force of nature worked its way into ancient mythology. Lightning-based weapons are commonplace in these stories, from the hammer of the Viking god Thor to the spear of the Hindu god Indra. Through the image of Zeus's thunderbolts it evolved into a symbol of divine intervention: the definitive act of god. Although these myths would eventually subside, our fascination with lightning continued. It its most basic form, the death ray is an attempt to harness this power.
Perhaps the earliest incarnation of the death ray was that of Archimedes's "burning mirror," supposedly employed against the Romans at the Siege of Syracuse (c. 214-212 BC). This device worked along the same lines as burning ants with a magnifying glass, focusing sunlight onto enemy ships and causing them to catch fire. The credibility of such a weapon having ever existed has been a source of debate ever since the Renaissance. The earliest accounts of the battle contain no mention of the device and the conventional weapons of the time were perfectly capable of setting fire to ships at a short distance. However, John Wesley (1810) suggested that, given the available material, such a weapon could have been constructed. An array of highly polished copper or bronze shields could have been used as a kind of parabolic reflector, working in a similar manner to a solar furnace. This method was tested in 1973 by the Greek scientist Ioannis Sakkas, who successfully used a series of seventy copper mirrors to burn a fleet of plywood ships (Time, 1973). Though not a death ray in the modern sense, it is certainly the longest surviving account of any kind of man-made directed-energy weapon.
The concept of the modern death ray was forged in the 1920s and 1930s, when various individuals theorized the application of a particle beam or electromagnetic weapon. The American inventor Edwin R. Scott claimed to have developed a "lightning device" that could "bring down planes at a distance" (NYT, 1924). Prior to this, Harry Grindell-Matthews had tried to sell an energy weapon to the British Air Ministry. In 1923 he claimed to have invented a device that could "put magnetos out of action," which with enough power could operate to a distance of up to four miles (Ibid.). However, despite demonstrating the weapon to journalists he was unable, or unwilling, to produce a working model for the military. Over a decade later, Antonio Longoria produced one of the more bizarre claims. Apparently he had constructed a device that could kill a mouse that had been encased in a "thick walled metal chamber" by dissolving its red blood corpuscles (Popular Science, 1940). The then president of the Inventor's Congress, Albert Burns, said that he had witnessed dogs, cats, pigeons and rabbits being killed at a distance by this weapon (Time, 1936).
Longoria's wanton abuse of pigeons would have angered the noted eccentric Nikola Tesla, who harbored a deep fondness for the bird. No discussion on the history of the death ray would be complete without mentioning the pioneering work of Tesla. He worked on his "teleforce" weapon from the early 1900s until his death in 1943, but because he was unable to secure any governmental funding, the project was left undeveloped. His ideas concerning the creation of the energy weapon seem to be the most viable when compared with those of Longoria, Scott, and Grindell-Matthews. His theory was that a narrow stream of particles, perhaps mercury or tungsten, could be accelerated by a high-voltage current to produce a concentrated beam of minute projectiles. Tesla believed (some would say wildly exaggerated) that this would produce enough energy to destroy "a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 250 miles" (NYT, 1934). He boasted that his weapon would have the effect of surrounding every country that used it with an impenetrable barrier, capable of destroying invading armies before they could even cross the border (Ibid.). In fact, all four of these pioneers made similar claims.
Indeed, the one thing that these men all had in common was their singular belief that their death rays could put a stop to armed conflict. Tesla optimistically referred to his weapon as a "peace-ray"—"a machine to end war" (Tesla, 1937). Similarly, Grindell-Matthews believed that "the death-ray will sweep whole armies into oblivion, whole cities into bleak, smoldering ruins, explode bombs in midair, blow up ammunition dumps from great distances [and so] end war" (Time, 1924). Fundamentally, they desired to create a weapon that was so powerful that it would act as the ultimate deterrent against war. It is no surprise, then, that when such a weapon was finally developed, public interest in the death ray dwindled. The atomic bomb took its place as the superweapon of unimaginable annihilation, surpassing the destructive capability of any of the proposed energy weapons. Although the United States National Inventors Council would continue to list the death ray as a much needed military invention until 1957 (NYT, 1957), the golden age of the concept was over by the late 1940s.
The death ray did have a brief resurgence during the 1980s, at least in a defensive capacity, under the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program. Seemingly lifted straight from the pages of a comic book, the program suggested that a network of satellite-based lasers could be used to destroy missiles in flight. The technology behind this idea was dubious at best, and although the program continues through the Missile Defense Agency, the laser-based concepts have been shelved. This was perhaps the last great gasp of the death ray in modern times, as its applications have proved to be somewhat limited. Their legacy was assured, however, as the real world development of the death ray helped to popularize their use in science fiction.
The death ray had, of course, already featured in fiction prior to the twentieth century. H. G. Wells included a ray-type weapon in his seminal novel The War of the Worlds (1898). His description of the Martian Heat-Ray is similar to, and probably based on, John Wesley's description of Archimedes's burning mirror. It too used a parabolic mirror to focus and direct a beam of intense energy, which is described as having similar properties to light. The only differences between the two devices were the intensity of the beam and the source that powered it, which was obviously more fantastical in War of the Worlds. The Martian Heat-Ray led to the appearance of similar weapons in other works of fiction in the early twentieth century. More importantly, Wells probably influenced the development of directed-energy weapons in the real world.
The mid-twentieth century would see the beginning of the widespread use of the death ray in science fiction. At first these were weapons of unknown design, many of which appeared to be electrically based, firing lightning arcs at its target. Later, following the first demonstration of a working model in 1960, the laser briefly became the weapon of choice in science fiction. Examples are the Lost in Space television series (1965-1968) or the pilot episode of Star Trek (1964). However, once the limitations of the laser became evident in the late 1960s, the technology behind the death rays in fiction became more ambiguous. The generic term "beam" became prevalent, being ambiguous enough to describe all manner of energy weapons. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the particle beam-style death ray became the most popular, from the replacement phasers of Star Trek (1966-1969) to the stylized proton beams of Ghostbusters (1984). All of these weapons are, of course, grounded in pseudoscience, and none suffer from the disadvantages that plague energy weapons in reality.
An effective energy weapon has yet to materialize in the real world, in spite of progress in the field. Lasers are the archetypal weapon in science fiction, but power constraints mean that in practice they are usually used only for targeting purposes. In theory a weaponized laser would be able to fire brief pulses of energy that would cause damage through a process known as mechanical shear, meaning that the target surface would be explosively evaporated. There are some of these weapons in existence, usually gas-dynamic lasers, which work by forcing the laser media through a series of holes at high pressure to create a stream of plasma. Stranger still is the electrolaser, which acts as high-powered taser by directing an electric current down an ionized track of plasma. Aside from the power issue, the main drawback of all lasers is the delicate system of high precision mirrors and windows within the resonance chamber. Put simply, they are just not practical in combat situations.
Research into the possibility of microwave-based weapons has proved more promising. Weapons of this type have already been manufactured and are capable of injuring human tissue (CBS, 2008). They work by heating the water in the target's skin cells to cause excruciating pain and even death. Microwaves also have further applications in their ability to destroy unshielded electronics. The U.S. Air Force leads the way in this area of research, mainly in producing a stun device for riot situations. In theory this weapon could only incapacitate the target, though some have suggested that lasting damage may occur. The most tantalizing aspect of this type of weapon is that all of all the components that are required to manufacture it are already available. This is the main drawback of particle beam and plasma-based weapons.
The main selling point of the particle beam weapon is the possibility of it being self-focusing in the atmosphere. This had led to the suggestion that it is a prime candidate for use against satellites and spacecraft (FAS, 2005). An electrical discharge in the vacuum of space could travel an unlimited distance at slightly slower than the speed of light. A laser beam would be an unsuitable carrier for this discharge because it would soon disperse. A particle beam could be the solution to this as it would, in theory at least, be able to keep the electric discharge on track. However, like lasers, a particle beam would suffer from blooming, which means that energy directed at the target would eventually spread out after a certain distance and make it less effective. A particle beam would also travel much slower than the speed of light due to the mass and density of the beam itself.
Plasma-based weapons utilize a stream or bolt of plasma, an excited state of matter, to cause damage to the intended target. Plasma torches are used already to cut metal, and these could potentially be weaponized. There is a theory that the phenomenon known as ball lightning may be a type of plasma, which could be mimicked to produce a kind of guided energy missile. This idea was adopted by the Shiva Star project, which attempted to create a defense network to shoot down enemy missiles with plasma projectiles (Turchi, 1973). Again, power constraints are the main issue as well as the practicality of such a device when compared with more conventional weapons.
And so the future of the death ray is uncertain at best. Although the technology is feasible, and in some cases readily available, these devices have yet to materialize on the battlefield. The power constraints of these weapons as well as their highly intricate and bulky designs make them wholly impractical in combat situations. In any case, none of these theoretical weapons have been predicted to match up to the sheer destructive force prophesied by the likes of Tesla. When compared with conventional weapons, the benefits of a directed energy weapon seem slight. Yet there still lingers a fascination with the death ray, perhaps bordering on the romantic. The almost pseudoscientific nature of these weapons will assure their persistence in the fictional world, if not the real one.
CBS News. "The Pentagon's Ray Gun." Jun. 1, 2008.
FAS. Federation of American Scientists. "Neutral Particle Beam (NPB)." 2005.
NYT. New York Times. "Denies British Invented 'Death Ray'—E.R. Scott Asserts He and Other Americans Preceded Grindell-Matthews." Sep. 5, 1924.
Ibid. "Council Seeking Death-Ray and Greaseless Bearing for Armed Forces." Nov. 3, 1957.
Ibid. "Beam to Kill Army at 200 Miles, Tesla's Claim on 78th Birthday." Jul. 11, 1934.
Popular Science. "Inventor Hides Secret of Death-Ray." Feb. 1940.
Tesla, N. "A Machine to End War," in The Anti-Gravity Handbook, 2003, pp. 81-86, 1937.
Time. "Archimedes' Weapon." Nov. 26, 1973.
Ibid. "Grindell-Matthews." Aug. 25, 1924.
Ibid. "Welder at Work." Aug. 10, 1936.
Turchi, P. "Generation of High-Energy Plasmas by Electromagnetic Implosion," in Journal of Applied Physics, vol. 44., 1937.
Wesley, J. A Compendium of Natural Philosophy, Chapter XII, Burning Glasses, 1810.
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