Death Rays And The Popular Media, 1876-1939 by William J. Fanning, Jr. (book review).

December 31, 2015 | By | Reply More

The kind of happy subject you want this time of year is ‘Death Rays And The Popular Media’. Specifically from their source between ‘1879-1939’ and as the sub-title goes, ‘A Study Of Directed Energy Weapons In Fact, Fiction And Film’. We are talking ray guns here, folks, and if you thought this was a modern day Science Fiction phenomenon, you’re obviously forgetting HG Wells ‘The War Of The Worlds’ and the Martians favourite weapon. However, author William J. Fanning, Jr. points out that the starting point is much earlier on Earth with proposals including the likes of inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. After all, with this discovery of electricity and the ability to move it at distances, then you would have a deadly weapon. Even HG Wells was in on the act, although not with the Martians but with the likes of ‘The War In The Air’ in 1908 looking at various applications.


To backtrack a bit, though, it was ‘Professor’ James C. Wingard in 1876 who got this reality moving and he was essentially conning the American military with death ray inventions that clearly couldn’t do as they claimed so was faking it instead. He was also only one of the con men doing this as they saw opportunities that hadn’t happened. The most notorious was Harry Grindell Matthews and most likely name variant to appear in fiction. They were happening as the likes of Edison showed that explosives could be detonated at a distance with radio waves but death rays weren’t possible.

Reading about what happened in real life with ‘death ray’ devices is like reading an arms war that no country wanted to be left out of. Most of the countries’ military before and after World War One put claim that they were working on such projects with the occasional reveal into the press of their success. If it wasn’t hoaxed by the various military, then it was certainly done so by the various con men who tried to convince them of such.

Some of the examples that Fanning gives sound distinctly like microwaves where the body warms up from the inside. That’s how a microwave oven works but unconfined by a box, the body can at least lose some of the heat or walk out of its path or range, assuming you knew what was upsetting you. Along this route, we had the development of radar so it isn’t like nothing came out of the more serious research. Interestingly, some of the examples also appear to be based off sonic-vibration in the extreme low range that we are more familiar with now then they were back then.

They weren’t all thought of as ‘death rays’ although effects like stopping engines and the like would certainly have felt like it had they applied it to attacking aircraft. Thinking about it and why aren’t devices like this used today is still down to the main problem: power! Microwaves, by their very name, are intense close up but projecting them over a distance loses much of their energy to do anything. Well, other than ping back but that’s how we get radar.

When Fanning moves on to fiction, we get examples and synopsises from a lot of books from across the world. More from detective fiction than Science Fiction as they need to track down who is using such dastardly devices. The biggest surprise was reading that Agatha Christie used death-rays in her novel ‘The Big Four’ (1927). Unsurprisingly, some of these authors used variant names of Harry Grindell Matthews trying to sell death-rays to the military, which shows how deep it got into the public conscience.

Much of the fiction and indeed films use death-ray devices as a McGuffin to find the bad guys responsible than the use of the weapon itself. If this wasn’t around, then these authors would have weaved a story around something else equally fiendish. If anything, SF was actually a late-comer, at least as far as weapons were concerned using them. With films, the 1933 ‘The Whispering Shadow’ was the first to use a horror star in Bela Lugosi but reading the plot, it is just a detective yarn. A better choice is the 1934 serial ‘The Vanishing Shadow’ where two devices were used and one of them made the user invisible which is SF territory. It also appears that ‘The Invisible Ray’ (1936) was the first SF film proper to use it.

Fanning makes a distinction between fiction and pulp fiction but by doing so focuses better on SF territory to come with ‘The Poniatowski Ray’ (1916) by George F. Stratton amongst the first to use death-rays to attack aeroplanes.

There is a wealth of information in this book. I think the biggest surprise was not seeing such devices being used in SF as much as you would think or, at least, not until much later as a weapon of choice. Whether that meant that upcoming SF authors knew it had been over-done in detective stories is hard to say or simply hadn’t moved onto application. Death-rays, purely by the name itself, is a fearful weapon to have at your disposal and from all synopsises, only the bad guys had them to use with impunity.

I do wish Fanning had explored a little further after WW2. After all, there had to be a transition with the military of various countries no longer pursuing such weaponry and its stronger stance in SF, especially in 1950s films. Nevertheless, this is a fine volume to get you started and a sigh of relief that the real thing never was created in our reality.

GF Willmetts

December 2015

(pub: McFarland. 274 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: £32.50 (UK), $35.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-78649-922-9)

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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