The black smoke, or black powder is a fictional poisonous gas in H. G. Wells' science fiction novel The War of the Worlds. It was used by the Martians to eliminate groups of humans remotely, especially artillery crews, before they could fire. The rockets from which they explode are fired from a "black tube" attached to the Tripod. Any human breathing this deadly smoke is killed almost instantly. The smoke would form a scum on contact with water. After the smoke had done its job, the Martians would dispel it with jets of steam, leaving only a residual black, "cindery" powder which reminds the narrator of what he, "read of the destruction of Pompeii". The smoke is more of an ink-like vapour than a smoke, and is very dense; it can be avoided by climbing to higher places. The aliens may have used this also to avoid unnecessary destruction of buildings in cities such as London. As they used it on London after one of their Tripods is brought down by a Twelve-pounder, it may be seen as a reserve weapon in case the humans prove dangerous. Although Wells never exactly explains how the black smoke works, he does mention that it may bind with argon and cause a disastrous chemical reaction inside a human who comes in contact with it. Although as at that time argon was considered inert this is unlikely.
Wells specified that the black smoke consists of an unknown element that shows four blue lines in a spectrum analysis. This element combined with the argon in our atmosphere to form the deadly gas. (Although in the very last chapter, spectrum analysis "unmistakenly" pointed to "the presence of an unknown element with a brilliant group of three lines in the green.")
There is no such possible unknown element, and argon cannot combine with anything else, with the marginal exception of fluorine, but chemical weapons proved to be widely used in human warfare after Wells' novel was written, especially in World War I.
In other adaptations
The only accurate screen appearance of the black smoke is in Pendragon Pictures' film adaptation. However, the film's aliens only use the smoke twice, and it is not described in any detail.
The black smoke is briefly mentioned in the 1978 musical version, where a tripod releases it while engaging the Thunder Child and later on when the narrator is trapped in the house. Its effects are not mentioned however; this is likely the result of an earlier usage being removed at the script editing stage. This musical version featured musicians known as the Black Smoke Band.
In the 1998 PC game, the black smoke can be launched from cannons by three Martian Machine units: the Fighting Machine, the Bombarding Machine and the Tempest. The smoke deals very high, always fatal, damage to any human vehicles that come close to it. However, this version lasts for a limited time, depending on what type of canister launcher the black smoke is launched from.
The Asylum film H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds features a deadly gas, but it is green rather than black in color. The "green smoke" does appear, however, to have the same deadly effect as the black smoke; it also has the same density, since it can be escaped by climbing to higher altitudes. Whereas the novel's smoke is launched from "black tubes" attached to the machines on an arm, this smoke leaks from a small object ejected from the walkers, from the same slot from which the Heat Ray is fired. The smoke in the novel was described as an ink-like vapour, but the film's smoke is believed to be a kind of toxic gas. It is described in no detail.
In the Asylum's 2008 sequel, War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave, the black smoke is left absent, though chemical warfare is briefly mentioned. A fleet of jets, upgraded with the Martian technology left from the first film, are equipped with a kind of Heat-Ray and missiles containing mustard gas, a weapon that has only been used in warfare once before, in World War I.
The black smoke is not used in Steven Spielberg's 2005 adaptation, but was a considered addition as early as a first draft until it was dropped due to paucity of time. It is also absent from the TV series, though the aliens do make attempts at engaging in chemical warfare.
- Wells, The War of the Worlds, Book Two
- Wells, The War of the Worlds, Book Two, Ch. 1.
- A Critical Review of the War of the Worlds, erbert George Wells et al, accessed September 2009