The dream and reality of “death rays”

“As soon as the enemy arrives, it immediately launches a death ray.” In the early 20th century, a reporter wrote in a report, “Any combustible material will burn with it, and lead will flow like water, which will soften the iron. The glass is broken and melted, and when it shines on the water, the water will quickly vaporize and explode.”

It sounds like a very powerful new weapon turned out. But this is not true. The “Death Ray” here and its description are completely copied from the science fiction “Star Wars” written by British writer HG Wells in 1898. After Wells opened a head, this weapon consisting of terrible high-energy beams became the enduring content of science fiction.

There are also a lot of people who want to turn it into reality, but in the end they all ended up with a scam or a farce. Recalling this history today is quite worthy of our taste.

Fictional F-ray

At the turn of the 20th century, the discovery of new types of radiation emerged one after another. German physicist Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of radio waves in 1887. Another German physicist, William Roentgen, produced X-rays in 1895, and soon discovered alpha, beta and gamma rays. .

In the years that followed, as Europe gradually moved toward war, an arms race began – high-tech weapons became more and more attractive, so that scammers had a chance.

In 1913, the Italian inventor Julio Ulivé claimed that he invented a new invisible infrared radiation, which he called “F-ray”. He said: F-rays can transmit enough energy through the air, and only need to detonate gunpowder 16 kilometers away. An army equipped with an F-ray generator can destroy enemy bullets and artillery, detonate their ammunition, and blow up enemy ships directly from the coast.

When the Italian military heard it, it raised its ears and immediately allocated a sum of money to Ulivi for the construction of the laboratory. By 1914, Ulivi claimed that his F-rays had blown up the torpedoes in the river during the experiment and planned to conduct a public trial, inviting military officials to come and watch.

However, on the eve of the trial, something changed dramatically. Ulivi fell in love with the daughter of the Italian Admiral in charge of the experiment. The lover suddenly ran away. As for the reason for elopement, although Ulivi kept saying that the woman’s father did not agree with their marriage, the real reason is probably that Ulivi was afraid that the scam would be debunked in public. Later, it was discovered that Ulivi used to detonate the torpedo is not a ray, but a metal sodium. We know that sodium metal reacts violently in water, producing a large amount of hydrogen, and hydrogen and air are extremely explosive.

Tesla and “Death Ray”

In the United States on the other side of the Atlantic, many people are also fascinated by ray technology, the most famous of which is the legendary physicist Nikola Tesla, the father of AC. In the same year that Star Wars was published, Tesla demonstrated a model of maneuvering a ship with radio waves; in 1899, he showed off the transmission of electricity over short distances in the air. He claims that he can quickly transfer electricity to the other side of the Atlantic. In 1901, the then financial tycoon Morgan gave him $150,000 (converted to today’s currency, worth more than $4 million) to build a 57-meter-tall tower on Long Island, near New York.

But this technology is untenable in physics, so when the money is spent, Tesla has not made a name for himself. In March 1916, with the United States participating in the First World War, Tesla took the opportunity to tell Electronic Experimenter magazine that he could use wireless power to detonate explosives hundreds of kilometers away. The magazine’s cover, titled “Tesla Destructor,” shows a launch tower on the coast and a ship that is exploding at sea. But this is just a fake news. Tesla’s purpose is to attract public attention and investment, and to raise funds for his follow-up research. As a result, many people have taken it. In 1917, angry investors dumped Tesla’s launch tower.

Later, Tesla occasionally talked about the death ray. In 1934, he announced the invention of another “death beam” that emits a tiny particle within the limits of the Earth’s curvature. When he died in 1943, the US Department of the Army sent an expert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to check out the manuscripts and inventions left by Tesla to see if there was anything of interest to the military. The expert found that in 1935 the Soviet Union secretly paid Tesla $25,000 for the study of “death rays,” but did not achieve any results.

Although Tesla is an amazing physicist, most of his highly respected work was done in the 19th century. Many of the things he did in the 20th century were only slapstick adventures, only to add to him. Legendary. His study of “death rays” is an example.

Open the way with ultraviolet light

During the First World War, with the first appearance of air and rocket warfare, interest in death rays was further increased, and people saw it as a means of combating air attacks. In September 1921, the French Army Commander wrote in the New York Times: “Under these rays, the plane will fall like a lightning strike, the tank will catch fire, the battleship will explode, and the poison will dissipate.” In 1923, when several French planes flying over German airspace were forced to land in an emergency, French officials suspected that Germany used wireless electron-ray weapons, which inspires their strong desire to have similar weapons.

A British inventor named Grindel Matthews smelled the opportunity. In 1924, he revealed a vision of “death rays” at a conference. He envisions using ultraviolet light to ionize the air, allowing the air to conduct electricity, which can destroy the aircraft and even destroy the entire army.

The idea is not stupid: ultraviolet light can ionize atoms in the air, and ions do conduct electricity. But the problem is that to achieve the purpose of destroying the aircraft, it requires extremely strong ultraviolet rays, and in the process of spreading, in order to concentrate energy, the ultraviolet rays cannot diverge and should spread like the current laser. In addition, in the path of ultraviolet light development, although there are ions, it is necessary to make them form a current, and a high voltage is required. All this, don’t say that at the time, we can’t do it now. After listening to Matthews’s statement, the British Air Force allocated him £1,000 to study. But Matthews’s “death ray” best performance is only to stop a motorcycle engine 14 meters away.

In the 1930s, with the approach of the Second World War, the radar was invented. Radar became the best defensive weapon for the British to deal with enemy bombers. However, the British military’s research on “death rays” is not completely dead. The Air Force once offered a reward. Anyone who can kill a sheep 100 meters away with a ray can get a prize of 1,000 pounds, but no one seems to have won this award. Later, gradually, no one ever mentioned the “death ray”.

Laser weapon as a “dead light”

In the 1960s, with the advent of lasers, people’s enthusiasm for “death rays” resumed. Various countries have been secretly developing laser weapons known as “dead light.” Laser weapons have the characteristics of energy concentration, fast transmission speed, high hit rate, rapid transfer of firepower, anti-electromagnetic interference, re-use, and low launch cost.

There are three principles for laser weapons to destroy targets, each of which is fatal.

The first type, heat damage. When a target object (such as an airplane, missile, ship, etc.) is exposed to a strong laser, the surface material absorbs heat and is heated, softened, melted, vaporized, and ionized, and finally either penetrated or exploded.

Second, the mechanics are destroyed. When the object illuminated by the laser is vaporized and ionized, the formed plasma will be ejected at a high speed, and the recoil force will cause the target object to be deformed and broken.

Third, the radiation is destroyed. If the emitted laser is ultraviolet or X-ray, they have the ability to penetrate the material, destroy the electronic components inside the target, and let the target object directly smash.

However, the shortcoming of laser weapons is that they cannot be operated around the clock, limited by heavy fog, heavy snow, heavy rain; and the laser emission system is a precision optical system, which is difficult to operate on a battlefield with complex terrain, dusty ground and vibration from time to time. In addition, laser weapons require a large amount of electrical energy, and it is difficult to achieve large-scale applications before the problem of energy storage devices being difficult to miniaturize (such as high-energy batteries).

But the research on laser weapons is also progressing step by step. According to reports, in 2010, the US military successfully destroyed a “Katyusha” missile with a laser weapon in a secret test. This is the world’s first laser-based anti-missile system. Since then, it has been alleged that Raytheon Company has destroyed four drones with laser weapons.

It seems that perhaps only the laser is a truly promising “death ray.”