I find Micah Hanks’s work to be infuriating for a number of reasons, but not least because he tends to write about the exact same things that I wrote about years earlier, but with less detail and insight. His latest piece on the history of ray guns in science fiction and science fact is another example of his light skimming of history. It is maddening that Hanks, who claims to be an explorer of all things Fortean and outré, misses several important connections between sci-fi death rays and the weirder side of history.
We should start with what Hanks gets right. He correctly notes that H. G. Wells developed the first death ray in the directed energy beams used by the Martians in The War of the Worlds (1897). And then, bizarrely, he simply skips over everything until the 1950s with a sentence: “After humanity fumbled their way to triumph over its Martian invaders (with a helping hand from a few friendly terrestrial viruses), later fiction cast these futuristic weapons in the hands of human characters the likes of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and other characters.” And that is that. The rest of the article provides a potted history of the use of lasers in the military.
Hanks missed some very interesting parts of the story. I briefly alluded to these in a footnote in my anthology Foundations of Atlantis, etc., when I noted that Edgar Cayce spoke about death rays in Atlantis (reading 364-11) and was obviously drawing on earlier pop culture. As I discussed back then, a ray capable of destroying people and airplanes from afar caused a frenzy in 1923 when Edwin R. Scott claimed to have invented one and in 1924 when another man tried to sell one to the British government. Similar beams were in use in science fiction years before. As I wrote in 2013, “In 1898 [Garrett P.] Serviss had given Edison a disintegration ray in Edison’s Conquest of Mars, modeled on H. G. Wells’s heat ray from War of the Worlds. Undersea Kingdom, borrowing from Flash Gordon, made a death ray a key part of the weapons of Atlantis four years after Cayce had done the same from similar source material.”
And I only touched on some of the ways death rays were deployed in pop culture between 1898 and the 1950s. In the 1915 movie serial The Exploits of Elaine, for example, the ninth chapter was literally called “The Death Ray” and featured an infrared beam that killed anything struck by its light. “The conclusion of this scene,” wrote the early cinema magazine Motography at the time, “in which the scientific detective turns the death-dealing ray back upon its wielders is a splendid climax…”.
But the movie versions pale before the fact—which Hanks entirely misses—that world governments in the 1920s were actively trying to develop death rays. Let me quote in full one contemporary article on the subject, which describes how Nicola Tesla’s alleged death ray influenced the subject. It appeared in the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers’ Journal for June 15, 1924:
It is said to be an ill wind that doesn't blow good to and for somebody and so it is with the death ray episode that finds daily space in the world's press.
Nicola Tesla claimed to have invented a death ray in the 1930s, as did Antonio Longoria. As I wrote in my recent article about Hitler’s wonder-weapons, the Nazis also tried to make death rays, including one that would use directed x-ray beams to kill its targets.
Now, I don’t know about you, but to my mind that strongly implies that death rays were more than just a minor science fiction trope that bizarrely exploded in popularity when Hollywood started making flying saucer movies. Instead, the death ray was an established part of popular culture and became important to science fiction because they were the futuristic weapons that actual governments had explored using but did not yet have the technology to bring to fruition.
Contrary to Hanks’s claim, you can see that rays of various kinds were widespread in pop culture before the 1950s, at which point they were so commonplace that Looney Tunes could make fun of them, particularly in the hands of Daffy Duck’s Duck Dodgers, whose Serviss-inspired disintegration ray famously disintegrated.
In short, Hanks once again missed the interesting parts of the story because he skipped over the hard work of researching the subject in detail.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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