Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876-1939

I came across this book when researching the background behind Fröis Fröisland’s “The Man with the X-ray Eyes”, specifically the history of one Giulio Ulivi. So, when I saw this book offered later for review, I eagerly requested it.

I was not disappointed. Ulivi’s story is, in fact, a linchpin of the book, and I’ll be updating my entry for Fröisland’s story.

My inner pedant is also gratified to see that Fanning completely omits any mention of Fröisland.

Review: Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876-1939: A Study of Directed Energy Weapons in Fact, Fiction and Film, William J. Fanning, Jr., 2015.Death Rays and the Popular Media

Let’s play a game.

Which of the three quotes below is from a piece of pulp science fiction?

… death ray that will bring down airplanes, halt tanks on the battlefields, ruin automobile motors and spread a curtain of death like the gas clouds of the recent war.

 

At one hundred kilometers, all the bullets of the soldiers, all the belts of the machine guns, all the shells loaded in the cannons, all the bombs, all the grenades, … all will explode. The blue rays will leave nothing, not even a gram of explosive …

 

Think of it as a death ray sweeping across an advancing army’s front – picture each gun sparkling like a superstatic machine, charring each soldier’s hand and arm

Not terribly obvious, is it? The answer is the last quote from Eando Binder’s “Static” published in the December 1936 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.

Death rays were showing up in popular novels like the source of our second quote, from the 1917 French novel La Machine a finir la guerre (The Machine to End War) by Roland Dorgeles and Regis Gignoux. And I don’t mean proto science fiction novels. If we define science fiction as a subgenre of fantasy where the fantastic elements are rationalized by a scientific, pseudo-scientific, technological, or pseudo-technological means, then, yes, these are science fiction stories.

Except the writers didn’t think they were writing anything really fantastic by contemporary standards. And neither did a surprising number of critics and reviews who commented on the plausibility of the death rays.

In fact, some literary critics, including G. K. Chesterton, complained about how death rays showed up everywhere. Anarchists wielded them (as in Agatha Christie’s The Big Four). Idealists hoped to they would make weapons useless and end war. Swindlers used them to pull insurance scams. Garden variety killers got a hold of them. People hoping to crash the international gold standard turned to them.

And given how much they were talked about in the news, in science journals, and by a host of people including Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla (of course), Winston Churchill, Stanley Baldwin, and Oliver Lodge, why would they be considered fantastic?

This book is rife with quotes from European, Australian, New Zealand, and American newspapers about purported death ray research.

Technically, what’s usually talked about are “motor stopping rays”, specifically stopping plane engines because the big fear of the inter-war years were planes dropping bombs and gas on civilian populations because, as was famously noted by Stanley Baldwin in 1932, “the bomber will always get through”. (This fear is best remembered today in the beginning of the filmed version of H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come which has some similarities to Michael Arlen’s  death ray novel Man’s Mortality, likely Wells’ source novel from 1933.) The actual term “death ray” goes back to an 1898 newspaper story.

Many of the stories from the interwar years are concerned with “the next year” — already a common term by 1921. (That first quote is from a May 24, 1924 story in the Chicago Tribune.)

There are three large historic events in the story: the claims of Ulivi to have invented a death ray in 1913 and offering it to the Italian, British, and French governments; the mysterious stoppings of French plane engines over Bavaria in 1923; and Grindell Mathews, another inventor, claiming to have invented a death ray and offering it for sale in 1923.

In the years from 1924 to 1939, death rays were simply considered to be real weapons or on the verge of being invented. Only a few scientists rightly pointed out that, while theoretically possible, there were large practical constraints to their military use (like energy and range). A few real tests were carried out – mostly animals killed at very short ranges.

The belligerent nations of World War II actually continued researching the possibility of death rays and, indirectly, some claim it led to radar research though Fanning mostly covers that in a post-1939 coda.

Fanning writes clearly and concisely. Everything is scrupulously sourced and indexed. Alas, there are no photos.

This book should definitely appeal to anyone with an interest in the popular mystery and suspense novels of the period (several plot synopsis are given) as well as the pulps, forteana (all those newspaper stories of death ray inventors and mysteriously stopped car engines), crank science, and the technofolklore of the past.

Some Things Brought to Mind

Now that all this talk of rays has saturated my mind, a few thoughts come to mind.

Some of the death rays  were linked in fiction to ancient civilization and mind control which brought to mind Richard Shaver’s Deros myths.

I also, since some rays were linked to spreading poison and killing or spreading germs, thought of the radionics medicine of Albert Abrams.

Of course, research into wireless, directed energy weapons has continued since World War Two. We have rays of a sort for crowd control –and we’ve come a ways on that whole engine stopping thing.

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4 thoughts on “Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876-1939

    • Fanning doesn’t offer a complete explanation.

      The nearest he comes is quoting a 1943 American newspaper. It states a French engineer was trying out motor adjustments on his employer’s product, a French aviation company.

      Those engines were installed on planes flown by a French airline over Bavaria. It was that faulty adjustment which forced so many planes down.

      However, as Fanning notes, the French planes forced down were flying more than one route, so this explanation is not complete.

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