The death ray or death beam was a theoretical particle beam or electromagnetic weapon first theorized around the 1920s and 1930s. Around that time, notable inventors such as Guglielmo Marconi, Nikola Tesla, Harry Grindell Matthews, Edwin R. Scott, Erich Graichen and others claimed to have invented it independently. In 1957, the National Inventors Council was still issuing lists of needed military inventions that included a death ray.
While based in fiction, research into energy-based weapons inspired by past speculation has contributed to real-life weapons in use by modern militaries sometimes called a sort of "death ray", such as the United States Navy and its Laser Weapon System (LaWS) deployed in mid-2014. Such armaments are technically known as directed-energy weapons.
In the year 1923, Edwin R. Scott, an inventor from San Francisco, claimed he was the first to develop a death ray that would destroy human life and bring down planes at a distance. He was born in Detroit, and he claimed he worked for nine years as a student and protégé of Charles P. Steinmetz. Harry Grindell-Matthews tried to sell what he reported to be a death ray to the British Air Ministry in 1924. He was never able to show a functioning model or demonstrate it to the military.
Nikola Tesla claimed to have invented a "death beam" which he called teleforce in the 1930s and continued the claims up until his death. Tesla explained that "this invention of mine does not contemplate the use of any so-called 'death rays'. Rays are not applicable because they cannot be produced in requisite quantities and diminish rapidly in intensity with distance. All the energy of New York City (approximately two million horsepower) transformed into rays and projected twenty miles, could not kill a human being, because, according to a well known law of physics, it would disperse to such an extent as to be ineffectual. My apparatus projects particles which may be relatively large or of microscopic dimensions, enabling us to convey to a small area at a great distance trillions of times more energy than is possible with rays of any kind. Many thousands of horsepower can thus be transmitted by a stream thinner than a hair, so that nothing can resist." Tesla proposed that a nation could "destroy anything approaching within 200 miles ... [and] will provide a wall of power" in order to "make any country, large or small, impregnable against armies, airplanes, and other means for attack". He claimed to have worked on the project since about 1900, and said that it drew power from the ionosphere, which he called "an invisible ball of energy surrounding Earth". He said that he had done this with the help of a 50-foot tesla coil.
During World War II, the Germans had at least two projects, and the Japanese one, to create so called death rays. One German project led by Ernst Schiebold concerned a particle accelerator with a steerable bundle of beryllium rods running through the vertical axis. The other was developed by Dr Rolf Widerøe and is referred to in his biography. The machine developed by Widerøe was in the Dresden Plasma Physics laboratory in February 1945 when the city was bombed. Widerøe led a team in March 1945 to remove the device from the ruined laboratory and deliver it to General Patton's 3rd Army at Burggrub where it was taken into US custody on 14 April 1945. The Japanese weapon was called Death ray "Ku-Go" which aimed to employ microwaves created in a large magnetron.
In science fiction
The concept of a death ray has fueled science fiction stories at least as early as Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy’s 1927 novel The Garin Death Ray. Later science fiction introduced the concept of the handheld raygun used by fictional characters such as Flash Gordon. In Alfred Noyes' 1940 novel The Last Man (US title: No Other Man), a death ray developed by a German scientist named Mardok is unleashed in a global war and almost wipes out the human race. Similar weapons are found in George Lucas' science fiction saga Star Wars.
- Rachele Mussolini, Mussolini privato, Milano, 1979, Rusconi Editore.
- To, Wireless (June 4, 1928). "Finds a 'Death Ray' Fatal to Humans. German Scientist Says it Inflames and Destroys Cells, Hence Aids in Disease. Expects to Split Atom. Dr. Graichen Has Device to Make Blind See With Light Sent Through the Skull". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-07-21.
Berlin, June 4, 1928. The discovery of a new 'death ray,' capable of destroying, though not intended to destroy, human life, has just been announced by Dr. Graichen, a young physicist and engineer employed as an experimenter by the Siemens Halske Electric Company.Cite has empty unknown parameter:
- "The 'Death Ray' Rivals". The New York Times. May 29, 1924. Retrieved 2007-07-21.
The inventors of a 'death ray' multiply every day. To H. Grindell-Matthews and Professor T.F. Wall have been added two other Englishmen, Prior and Raffe, and Grammachikoff, a Russian. Herr Wulle, 'chief of the militarists' in the Reichstag, has informed that body that the Government has a device that will bring down airplanes, stop tank engines, and 'spread a curtain of death.'Cite has empty unknown parameter:
- "Council Seeking Death Ray and Greaseless Bearing for Armed Forces". Associated Press in The New York Times. November 3, 1957. Retrieved 2007-07-21.
Washington, DC, Nov. 2, 1957 (AP) Anyone who has a death ray lying around the house, a hole digger that disposes of the dirt as it goes along, or a greaseless ball bearing that can be used in temperatures rangingCite has empty unknown parameter:
- Gallagher, Sean (2014-06-03). "Navy will deploy first ship with laser weapon this summer". Ars Technica. Retrieved 2018-05-28.
- Hodge, Nathan (2010-06-03). "Navy's drone death ray takes out targets - CNN.com". CNN.com. Wired. Retrieved 2018-05-28.
- "Denies British Invented 'Death Ray'. E.R. Scott Asserts He and Other Americans Preceded Grindell-Matthews". The New York Times. September 5, 1924.
Washington, DC, September 4, 1924 Edwin R. Scott an inventor of San Francisco, today challenged the assertion of Mr. Grindell-Matthews, who sailed for London on the Homeric last week, that the latter was the first to develop a 'death-ray' that would destroy human life and bring down planes at a distance.Cite has empty unknown parameter:
- "Death Stroke". Time. August 10, 1925. Retrieved 2007-07-21.
Utmost secrecy always shrouds the structural details of new munitions of war. This one, announced last week by its inventor, Dr. Edwin R. Scott, is called the 'death stroke' or 'canned lightning'. The Navy Department, which has been in touch with Dr. Scott's researches, hinted that the ultraviolet ray was involved, but Dr. Scott stated specifically: 'There is no ray or beam about it.'Cite has empty unknown parameter:
- "Nikola Tesla Dies. Prolific Inventor. Alternating Power Current's Developer Found Dead in Hotel Suite Here. Claimed a 'Death Beam'. He Insisted the Invention Could Annihilate an Army of 1,000,000 at Once". The New York Times. January 8, 1943. Retrieved 2007-07-21. Cite has empty unknown parameter:
- "Beam to Kill Army at 200 Miles, Tesla's Claim On 78th Birthday". New York Herald Tribune. July 11, 1934. Archived from the original on December 1, 2010. Retrieved 2007-07-21.
- "Tesla, At 78, Bares New 'Death-Beam'. Invention Powerful Enough to Destroy 10,000 Planes 250 Miles Away, He Asserts. Defensive Weapon Only. Scientist, in Interview, Tells of Apparatus That He Says Will Kill Without Trace". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-09-04.
Nikola Tesla, father of modern methods of generation and distribution of electrical energy, who was 78 years old yesterday, announced a new invention, or inventions, which he said, he considered the most important of the 700 made by him so far.Cite has empty unknown parameter:
- "A Machine to End War". PBS: Tesla - Master of Lightning.
- "Inventor Hides Secret of Death Ray". Popular Science. February 1940. Retrieved 2008-12-11. Cite has empty unknown parameter:
- "Welder at Work". Time magazine. August 10, 1936. Retrieved 2008-12-11.
Two years ago President Albert Burns of the Inventors' Congress declared that he had seen pigeons, rabbits, dogs and cats killed at a distance by a "death ray" which dissolved red blood corpuscles. The inventor, said President Burns, was Dr. Antonio LongoriaCite has empty unknown parameter:
- "Gadgeteers Gather". Time magazine. January 21, 1935. Retrieved 2008-12-11.
Albert G. Burns of Oakland, Calif, was re-elected president of the Congress. It was Mr. Burns who last year revealed that a Clevelander named Antonio Longoria had invented a death-ray which killed rabbits, dogs & cats instantly. President Burns said that Inventor Longoria would withhold his secret until invasion threatened the U. S.Cite has empty unknown parameter:
- Holland, Charles. "Alfred Noyes, The Last Man" Archived 2011-07-06 at the Wayback Machine, St. Dunstan's Red and White, St. Dunstan's University.
- William J. Fanning, Jr. (21 August 2015). Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876–1939: A Study of Directed Energy Weapons in Fact, Fiction and Film. McFarland. pp. 94–. ISBN 978-1-4766-2192-0.