Death Ray Matthews
The Death Ray is ubiquitous from science fiction to Conspiracy Theory. DR DAVID CLARKE and ANDY ROBERTS review the career of the man who invented it... Or so he claimed
They called him ‘Death Ray Matthews’. It wasn’t a name he chose for himself, but of all the inventions Harry Grindell Matthews was known for, it was the death ray for which he was both feted and vilified. Was he a charismatic mixture of visionary and charlatan, or an ignored and embittered inventor who could have shortened both World Wars? Whatever the answer, his story is a fascinating one, not least because it brings into sharp focus how the British Government viewed fortean ideas in the early years of the 20th century.
By any standards Harry Grindell Matthews led a remarkable life. Born in 1880 at Winterbourne in Gloucestershire, he was educated at the Merchant Venturer’s School in
For years Matthews had been fascinated by the idea of communication over distances without the use of wires and, following in Marconi’s footsteps, in 1911 he staged a demonstration of radio telephony, transmitting a message from the ground to B C Hucks flying two miles (3.2km) away and at 600 ft (183m). Hucks himself deserves a footnote in the annals of forteana as being the maverick flier who was sent to search the Scottish lowlands for alleged German bases during the phantom Zeppelin scares of the First World War.
His wireless telephone experiments attracted a great deal of attention in high places and the Court Circular of 5 July 1912 edition of The Times boldly stated, “
Fame and fortune awaited those who could successfully develop inventions that could be useful to the armed forces and Matthews saw a gap in the market through which he could become wealthy and serve his country. How he went about that process, however, casts doubt on his real motives and the authenticity of all his inventions, most notably the death ray.
But to understand both Matthews’ relationship with officialdom and the ultimate failure of the death ray we need first to trace his steps between 1911 and 1924.
In the run-up to the First World War, the Admiralty took an interest in his Aerophone device and Matthews was invited to give a demonstration. As his patents at that time were only provisional he demanded that no ‘experts’ be present. The Admiralty agreed and the demonstration went ahead. But before it was completed Matthews’ assistant discovered four of the invited observers had taken advantage of his absence from the room to dismantle the apparatus, taking notes and sketches. In a rage, Matthews cancelled the demonstration immediately and sent everyone away, despite the protests of the Admiralty officials.
The press scented a scandal and was immediately on Matthews’ side, national and provincial papers trumpeting his cause, outraged at the intransigence of the Admiralty. Public opinion was whipped into such frenzy that the War Office had no option but to face up publicly both to the press and the upstart who challenged them. A statement was issued via The Daily Telegraph in which the War Office denied any tampering and insisted that the Aerophone experiment had been a failure. As the experiment had not even begun before the men from the ministry began their tampering, Matthews sensed jealousy, if not a cover up, was at work. Faced with an official denial, he had a change of mind and in turn issued a statement retracting his claims and downsizing the affair to a ‘misunderstanding’.
This bizarre incident was one of many where Matthews would announce an invention only to fail at the last minute, for whatever reason, to demonstrate it working successfully. It was also the genesis of the media’s love affair with Matthews and his inventions. More importantly it marked the drawing of a line in the sand between Matthews’ essentially fortean ideas and the staid mechanistic traditions of the British scientific establishment. Matthews then faded from the public gaze until World War One.
Now, in 1914 and faced with the prospect of a lengthy conflict, the British government was desperate for innovations which would help them wage war against
Yet there was something not quite right about this event. Although the remote control boat had been proven to the Admiralty officials and a vast sum of money paid, the idea never manifested as workable in practice. The Admiralty, for whatever reason, chose not to pursue Matthews’ selenium control system which, besides operating boats remotely, was claimed to detonate explosives at a distance. Was this ignorance and jealousy on behalf of the War Office or the first hints that Matthews wasn’t quite as genuine as he appeared? Again Matthews lapsed into obscurity. He re-appeared briefly, yet significantly, in 1921, breaking new ground by producing the world’s first talking picture. This was a short interview with the explorer Ernest Shackleton prior to his fatal attempt at circumnavigating the Antarctic. This film is important because it proves Matthews, despite the hype and ambiguity which often attended his inventions, was not a charlatan, and was in many ways years ahead of his time.
Unfortunately, the British film industry told Matthews that ‘talkies’ would never catch on. Just a few years later, the Americans embraced the talking film and revolutionised the movie industry for ever. Why was Grindell Matthews’ invention not taken up? Why indeed?
The static carnage of World War One had set inventors thinking about how the impasse of trench warfare could be broken. All the talk was of some kind of ‘ray’ which could disable men and machines at great distances. Both H G Wells and H Rider Haggard had produced fictional accounts of such a ‘death ray’ years earlier and as forteans know, whatever can be imagined can be invented. Or can it?
Matthews turned his mind to the idea of a possible death ray in the autumn of 1923. After reading news reports of French airplanes dropping out of the sky over
Thus the death ray was born in the mind of the popular press. Matthews capitalised on his new-found fame, being well aware that his stock was not particularly high with the British government. So, rather than approach them directly, he went to his old friends the press. They were only too happy to help, and fanciful accounts of the death ray and what it could do began to appear by late 1923. Bemused by Matthew’s sudden re-appearance but fearful that the publicity he was enjoying would lead to another nation bidding for the death ray, the War Office was forced to act. Swallowing their pride and suspending their disbelief, in February 1924 the Air Ministry offered Matthews the opportunity to demonstrate his death ray to them. Matthews at first ignored their advances, perhaps hoping the government would simply accept his assertion that the ray did as he said.
When no such offer was forthcoming, Matthews contacted the press with further dramatic claims and by April 1924 the death ray – or more properly the idea of the death ray – was world news. The London Star announced the invention as a “wonderful invisible ray which has turned into fact the dreams of Wells’ fiction.” And they hadn't even seen it yet! A wide-eyed Star reporter was ushered into Matthews’
The scientific principles on which the ‘ray’ worked were glossed over by all concerned. Ionized air carrying an electrical current was mentioned by some commentators, others talked of exceptionally short radio waves. Matthews wasn’t saying and no-one appeared to be asking the right questions, certainly not the press. To them the idea of a death ray was enough.
Still the government wouldn’t commit itself and now Matthews was receiving offers from other countries, notably big business concerns in
Despite their initial interest, strong doubts were beginning to be expressed by the Air Ministry. They had been duped or conned many times before by ‘inventors’ who made great claims but failed to deliver the promised inventions. They may even have been duped by Matthews himself. An internal government memo coyly suggested that Matthews’ 1915 payment of £25,000 was largely due to the influence of one particular lord and was not entirely deserved. Worryingly, it also suggested that enquiries should be “instituted with the Birmingham Police records as to Mr G Matthews’ past history.”
A secret report looking into Matthews’ claims and past history was apparently generated by the Intelligence Services, but appears not to survive in the Public Record Office at
Matthews, now in negotiations to sell his invention in
From these experiments – both easily carried out using scientific techniques available at the time – Matthews expected the full confidence of the British government. He would be disappointed. Immediately following the demonstration, a meeting was convened by the Air Ministry at to discuss the death ray. Those present at the demonstration were now joined by representatives from each of the armed forces. Each commented on what they had seen in Matthews’ laboratory. The reports were not positive. Major Wimperis from the Air Ministry stated: “I was rather surprised to find the inventor should imagine that one would be impressed.” The Admiralty’s F Smith, also doubted what he had seen, adding that Matthews’ assistants even appeared ignorant of how the ‘ray’ operated. Smith was also concerned that when he suggested Matthews move the cycle motor from the lab bench to the floor, Matthews “did not like this suggestion and explained further that he was in a great hurry.”
Odd behaviour from a man who wished to convince the British Government of one of the greatest inventions yet seen. Smith sensed trickery was afoot, adding that he had been visited by the mysterious ‘Appleton’ – possibly an MI5 agent – who claimed that Matthews had no scientific knowledge as such but liked to experiment with “all sorts of gadgets”. This source suggested that Matthews “brought things up to a certain stage and no further, he would then raise money on what he had achieved”. In short, a scientific confidence trickster.
He had now lost patience with
At 10.40 that morning, the High Court in
Meanwhile the deluge of publicity which attended Grindell Matthews’ stand-off with the British government brought a flood of other death ray inventors out of the woodwork. At least 10 people, it seemed, had been harbouring death rays in their private laboratories and sheds, and the War Office was inundated with claimants. Several of these inventors were also investigated by the War Office but, as with Matthews, none could back their claims with meaningful demonstrations. The press were incensed when they discovered Matthews was dealing with the French, and wouldn’t let the matter drop.
Once again, the government was forced by popular opinion to make official statements and on 28 May questions were asked in the House of Commons. Mr Leach, Under Secretary for Air, was questioned by Commander Kenworthy, who demanded to know what steps were being taken to prevent an invention of the death ray’s magnitude from leaving the country. Leach re-iterated the government's position, “We are not in a position to pass judgment on the value of this ray, because we have not been allowed to make proper tests. Therefore whether there is anything in it or not still remains unexplored. The Departments have been placed in a difficult position in dealing with the matter partly because of the vigorous Press campaign conducted on behalf of this gentleman, and partly because this is not the first occasion on which the inventor has put forward a scheme for which extravagant claims have been made. The result is the Departments are not able to accept Mr Grindell Matthews’ statement about this invention without a scrutiny which he is not prepared to face.”
Unpicking this carefully-worded statement laid bare the government’s inherent scepticism regarding Matthews’ claims. Yes, government officials had seen a demonstration of the alleged death ray – but they were keen to point out that the circumstances of demonstration were of Matthews’ choosing, at his laboratory with all equipment being provided and set up by him. In government speak: “The departmental representatives were shown nothing which would lead them to credit the statements which have appeared in the Press as to the possibilities of the invention.”
Furthermore, His Majesty’s Government believed that “the conditions under which the demonstrations were made by Mr Matthews were such that it was not possible to form any opinion as to the value of the device.” Carefully worded or not, the implication seemed to be that Grindell Matthews at best may have not demonstrated his invention under correct laboratory conditions, and at worst had brazenly attempted to defraud the British Government. The statement went on to stress that the government had been at pains to be scrupulously fair with Matthews, offering him the chance to repeat the demonstration. All they required to be convinced was that he use his ray to stop the engine of a petrol driven motorcycle engine provided by them. On successful completion of this test, Matthews would then be given £1,000 as a retainer for 14 days whilst the government considered “the basis of further financial negotiations for the purchase or development of his invention.” As yet, the government didn’t even want to know how the ray worked, just for it to be demonstrated to their satisfaction using their own laboratory conditions. Not an unreasonable request.
The statement ended somewhat tersely: “Mr Grindell Matthews has refused this offer and it is clear he has left the country.” Unfazed by this scepticism, Grindell Matthews, still in
The British government wasn’t the only party in the country interested in the death ray. Sir Samuel Instone and his brother offered Matthews a substantial cash payment plus a salary of several thousand pounds a year if he would keep the invention in the
An Air Ministry official summed up the problem succinctly, saying: “This invention is either worth a large sum of money or it is worth nothing. No inventor could reasonably expect the government to pay a large sum of money for a patent until it had been fully tested. If the invention fulfils all that is claimed for it, the inventor has nothing to fear from official sources.”
Quite so. But neither Matthews nor any of his imitators could provide the vital proof needed. The death ray, upon which thousands of pounds, hundreds of hours and millions of column inches had been spent, was worth nothing to anyone as an idea alone.
Once again the press took up Matthews’ cause and allowed him space to rail against those who doubted him. In response to Lord Birkenhead who had written to The Times criticising his ‘ray’, Matthews argued that it was this attitude which had lost
From an entertainment perspective the film made great viewing, coming as it did in the wake of the massive publicity given the death ray furor. Yet there was no evidence that the subject matter of the film had any basis in reality. Stills show fantastic apparatus, claimed to be the death ray, but which bear no relation to the small Heath Robinson-like machine demonstrated to the government weeks earlier. Poetic license was clearly at work and S R Littlewood, in The Sphere, made some perceptive observations relevant to the whole affair: “...The Death Ray in which Mr Grindell Matthews is shown pulling levers of his machine and a rat is shown falling dead in its cage, a bicycle stopping and aeroplanes galore falling down in flames from the sky. From the scientific point of view – that is to say as a proof that it was the ray that killed the rat – I do not suppose that The Death Ray is intended to be regarded as of any value at all. One does not for a moment disbelieve Mr Grindell Matthews. At the same time a film which could have been so obviously ‘faked’ leaves one simply with the same amount of information as one had before save, perhaps, as to the shape of the machine, which is a sort of searchlight with three megaphone-like ears attached to it.
“There remains, however, the remarkable personality of Mr Grindell Matthews himself. One cannot help being at least bewildered by the psychology of a scientist who can enter into the spirit of a piece of mummery like this so completely that it is quite clear he was acting for all he was worth. In view of his many experiments it can evidently have been no great emotional strain to Mr Grindell Matthews to pull a lever with the intention of doing nothing worse than stopping a bicycle-wheel. Yet he pulls that lever with as much impressive gravity as if he were about some operation upon which life and death depended.”
This seemingly trivial excursion into film may have been a shrewd move by Matthews. The blanket press coverage of the death ray story had captured the public imagination. Now the death ray film allowed them to ‘see’ it with their own eyes, and was a perfect visual advertisement for Matthews, one which was shown widely across
Somewhat predictably, his assertions drew criticism from the American scientific establishment. Professor R Woods was scornful of the death ray and offered to stand in front of it for an indefinite period, confident it would do him no harm. “Nothing”, he said, “has been done that could lead a scientist or engineer to place the slightest credence in the death ray.” Criticism not-withstanding, on his return to Britain Matthews later claimed that ‘
The Observer seized on these contradictions, noting how: “Many people in this country will be curious to know the terms and conditions on which the United States have obtained a monopoly of Mr Grindell Matthews’ ‘Ray’”. Matthews himself was tight-lipped, refusing to say who or how much. All he would say was that he had returned merely to collect everything he owned before returning to
There the saga of the death ray ends. Matthews never managed to successfully demonstrate his invention to anyone's satisfaction. Whether this was because it was a complex money-making scam or whether the world’s governments were incapable of grasping the enormity of his ideas is unclear. We do know however that no-one ever developed a death ray, nor did Matthews pursue the invention further. Instead he went back to
By the late 1920s, Matthews was back in
On Christmas Eve 1930 he stunned
This invention clearly worked, yet once again Matthews was beset by problems. Although the invention could have revolutionised the emerging advertising industry, no-one seemed interested. Matthews had little time to reflect on this new failure as darker clouds were gathering and in 1931 he faced bankruptcy. His bankruptcy papers make interesting reading.
Question: “What is your full name?”
Answer: “Harry Grindell Grindell.”
Grindell Matthews, it seems, wasn't even his real name. The bankruptcy enquiry laid bare his financial and personal affairs, reducing his claims and inventions to mere transactions in a ledger book, profit and loss. The papers reveal a series of loans and investments made to Matthews, none of which made money, but which allowed him to live in hotels and luxury rented accommodation whilst he developed his various inventions. Undeterred, Matthews’ bounced back from bankruptcy and by 1934 he had raised sufficient funds from a new generation of financial backers to relocate to
Financially secure again, he embarked on another series of inventions. Seeing that the Second World War was on the horizon, he began to develop the idea of ærial mines fired by rockets or suspended by barrage balloons. These, he claimed, could create an effective ærial ring of defence round cities such as
There were many more inventions, including a system for detecting submarines. Matthews hauled these around government departments but as war clouds gathered people had less and less time for Matthews’ speculations. The death ray had proved the death knell for his reputation.
When war finally arrived, Matthews noted that had his inventions such as the ærial mines been taken up,
Genius or charlatan, probably a little of both, Grindell Matthews inspired intense debate and massive publicity. Some of his inventions such as the talking films, ærophone and sky-projector certainly worked and were years ahead of their time. Other ideas such as his theories of space travel would come to fruition later in the 20th century. But it was for the death ray he was best known and it was his failure to deliver the goods which was his eventual downfall, leading the scientific and political establishments of the era to overlook his other inventions.
It would be charitable to speculate that his flirtation with the death ray was mere showmanship to attract money for his more conventional ideas, much in the same way that the SETI programme maintains interest in more mundane aspects of space exploration. If so, it was a gamble which didn't pay off. We will probably never know.
If Tesla's crack-pottery was a swimming pool his death ray would be the deep end. As early as 1916 Tesla was trotting out his idea for the ultimate weapon that would make war obsolete by providing nations with unopposable destructive power. While Tesla wasn't the first (or last) to come up with a scheme for building a death ray, he was the one with the credentials to get the press to take him seriously enough to interview him without breaking out in a case of the giggles. ...will send concentrated beams of particles through the free air, of such tremendous energy that they will bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 250 miles from the defending nation's border and will cause armies of millions to drop dead in their tracks . Tesla tried to sell his death ray to 1906. This was probably Tesla's last "sane" project before he wandered off forever down the paths of crankdom. It's a high-speed bladeless turbine that consisted of a series of smooth disks which were turned by what is known today as a boundary-layer effect that relied on the viscosity of a flowing gas or liquid rather than striking blades. Since Tesla left no will, his belongings were eventually carted off to storage. But the The old fakir would have been proud.
Tesla’s Death Ray
Perhaps the best description of Tesla's death ray can be found in a 1937 New York Times Interview where he described how the borders of a country could be ringed by a series of towers, each of which contained his death ray generator. Any approaching foe by land, sea or air would be instantly detected and each tower, in the word of the Times:
When put into operation, Dr. Tesla said, this latest invention of his would make war impossible. This death-beam, he asserted, would surround each country like an invisible Chinese wall, only a million times more impenetrable. It would make every nation impregnable against attack by airplanes or by large invading armies.
Chinese wall, Maginot Line; big static defences. What do they have in common? They don't work worth squat if anyone actually tried to breach them. Maybe Tesla's death ray was unstoppable, but the towers look very stoppable indeed, even if Tesla's device had worked.
What puts Tesla's death ray in a league of its own is that his design actually had competent, even inventive, engineering about it. His idea was to use a gigantic electrostatic generator run by one of his turbines to accelerate tiny particles of mercury until they became a stream of super high-powered bullets of several million volts. Since they were accelerated in a vacuum, Tesla needed a way to spit them out of the accelerator sphere without letting air in. He proposed to do this with a special nozzle which blew high-pressure air around an open tube leading to the evacuated sphere and acted like a constantly renewing plug to preserve the vacuum. What happens to the mercury stream after it left the nozzle and had to travel through the atmosphere was another matter that was never quite figured out.
Incidentally, by "particles" Tesla did not mean protons, neutron and the like, but tiny droplets. Tesla had little truck with atomic theory and for an electrician he had no time for electrons.
If Tesla's crack-pottery was a swimming pool his death ray would be the deep end. As early as 1916 Tesla was trotting out his idea for the ultimate weapon that would make war obsolete by providing nations with unopposable destructive power. While Tesla wasn't the first (or last) to come up with a scheme for building a death ray, he was the one with the credentials to get the press to take him seriously enough to interview him without breaking out in a case of the giggles.
...will send concentrated beams of particles through the free air, of such tremendous energy that they will bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 250 miles from the defending nation's border and will cause armies of millions to drop dead in their tracks .
Tesla tried to sell his death ray to
1906. This was probably Tesla's last "sane" project before he wandered off forever down the paths of crankdom. It's a high-speed bladeless turbine that consisted of a series of smooth disks which were turned by what is known today as a boundary-layer effect that relied on the viscosity of a flowing gas or liquid rather than striking blades.
Since Tesla left no will, his belongings were eventually carted off to storage. But the
The old fakir would have been proud.