The 1920s saw a wide range of scientific developments for military usage, but popular interest was obsessed with the quest to create the Death Ray. Inspired in the public’s imagination by the Martian heat rays from H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds,” the Death Ray was meant to be an ultimate solution to war: a weapon so terrible that conventional warfare would be obsolete, and no nation could ever use it, out of fear of counterattack. Most famous of the Death Ray “inventors” was electrical genius Nikola Tesla, whose claims were taken seriously by military leaders. Most were not.
Harry Grindell Matthews, a British engineer and Boer War veteran, claimed as early as 1923 to have invented a Death Ray, and was invited by the British War Office to demonstrate it. According to the government, it was an absolute farce, and Matthews offered no attempt at explaining how his device worked. He did, however, make a short film of a mock demonstration, and then threatened to sell the death ray to France. That caught the British public’s attention.
“It may possibly be within the power of the Death Ray to destroy a city!” the film claimed confidently. Newspapers demanded the government answer why they had dismissed the potential death ray offered to them, with readers convinced by impressive (faked) video and photographic evidence. A parliamentary inquiry was formed in 1924 to grill top brass over their perceived negligence. In his defense the Under-Secretary of State for Air, William Leach, answered:
“I wish to assure the House that every facility has been afforded to Mr. Grindell Matthews to give a demonstration under conditions satisfactory to himself and to the Services. The Departments have been placed in a difficult position in dealing with Mr. Grindell Matthews, partly because of the vigorous Press campaign which has been conducted on behalf of this gentleman and partly because this is not the first occasion on which this inventor has put forward schemes for which extravagant claims have been made. As a result, the Departments are unable to accept Mr. Grindell Matthews’ statements in regard to this invention without a scrutiny which, apparently, he is not prepared to face.”
Today, there are many “death rays” and similar devices, generally called “directed-energy weapons.” While some possess large destructive force, the most practical are smaller-scale ones, like the anti-drone rifles used in the current war in Ukraine.