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 Bristol before training as an electrical engineer. During the Boer War he enlisted in the Baden-Powell South African Constabulary and was wounded twice. On his return to Britain he pursued his interest in the burgeoning electrical sciences on the estate of Lord de la Warr at Bexhill-on-Sea. There he displayed a natural aptitude for ‘thinking outside the box’ and began to first visualise and later produce a remarkable series of inventions.
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, “Buckingham Palace, July 4th. Her Majesty this afternoon inspected the wireless telephone invented by Mr. Grindell Matthews.” Contemporary photographs depict him chatting with the likes of future Prime Minister Lloyd George. These early forays into the world of invention were soon noticed by the War Office and the Admiralty, forerunners of today’s Ministry of Defence.
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 Germany. Two inventions interested them greatly. The first was a ray which would disable the Zeppelins, and the second was a ray which could control unmanned craft. A reward of £25,000 was offered to the person who came up with either. Matthews was convinced he could provide the latter and claimed he had developed a remote control system using cells containing selenium. After testing his invention on Edgbaston Reservoir, he demonstrated it to Admiralty officials at Richmond Park’s Penn Pond. They were so impressed that Matthews received his cheque for £25,000 the following morning, a not inconsiderable sum of money in 1915.
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 Germany, he said: “I realized that the Germans had found an invisible ray that put the magnetos of the aircraft out of action. I concentrated on efforts to discover what it was, and with the electric ray now at my command I think I have succeeded.” Select journalists were given a demonstration of Matthews’ ‘ray’ stopping a motor cycle engine at a distance of 50 ft (15m). “I am confident,” Matthews announced, “that if I have facilities for developing it I can stop aeroplanes in flight –- indeed I believe the ray is sufficiently powerful to destroy the air, to explode powder magazines, and destroy anything on which it rests.”
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’ London laboratory and shown a bowl of gunpowder being ignited by the ray. Matthews was at pains to explain this was only the beginning, a small scale demonstration of what could easily be the destruction of ammunition dumps at huge distances or the destruction of aeroplane engines in flight.
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 France. By mid-May 1924 the press was reporting, “...while the British government is interested it is not willing to assist him in perfecting his experiments and he is unable to resist the princely offer made by the Lyons firm.”
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 Kew. The old rivalries were at work again. But Matthews had some support in the British government, notably from Admiral Kerr who persuaded him not to sell his invention to another power. Kerr claimed Matthews “had given his word of honour not to divulge the secret of the ray until I confer with members of the British cabinet.”
Matthews, now in negotiations to sell his invention in France, was persuaded to return to England to demonstrate his ‘death ray’ to the three armed forces on 26 April at noon, one o’clock and 1.30pm. But the much vaunted ‘death ray’ demonstration was something of an anti-climax. After being ushered into Matthews’ laboratory various leading government officials were shown just two examples of the ray’s efficacy. An Osglim light bulb was held in the path of the ‘ray’. When the ray was switched on the bulb lit. A small motor mounted on a bench was then started and immediately brought to a halt by the ‘ray’.
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 4.00pm 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.
Furthermore, Appleton claimed Matthews was “working the press, but had now lost control of it.” The explicit conclusion of this meeting was that the government did not trust Matthews. Yet they were loathe to dismiss him completely as long as even a small chance remained that he could be onto something. No government wanted to turn down the death ray only for it to turn up later in the arsenal of an enemy. Air Vice Marshal Salmond wrote immediately to Matthews suggesting further, more detailed demonstrations. Matthews replied that he could not understand why the government would not accept the evidence he had presented to them.
He had now lost patience with England and was offering the ‘ray’ to the French. Following this breakdown of communications, events took a turn that was both dramatic and ludicrous. Tuesday 27 May 1924 saw scenes which could have come straight from an Ealing Comedy. The Daily Express summed up the farce perfectly a day later with its front page headline “Melodramatic Death Ray Episodes”. Their lead article opined: “Melodrama has seldom surpassed the heights which were reached in yesterday’s ‘Death Ray’ episodes. Hurried legal action in the High Court was followed by an unsuccessful motor-car chase, an air journey by Mr. Grindell Matthews to Paris, a belated renewal of conversations on this side of the channel, a reopening of negotiations in France and a deluge of claims by rival inventors. Beneath all was the undertone of tragedy suggested by the terrible powers which are attributed to the ray.”
At 10.40 that morning, the High Court in London granted an injunction to Matthews’ financial backers, restraining him from selling the rights to the death ray. At 10.45 am a blissfully unaware Matthews set off for Croydon aerodrome and the lunchtime flight to Paris. Three minutes later, Major H Wimperis arrived at Grindell Matthews’ laboratory, in an attempt to further broker a deal. As they were leaving, Matthews’ financial backers and their solicitor arrived bearing the recently issued injunction. Finding Matthews gone, they hired the fastest car available and sped to Croydon to prevent him leaving for France. They roared on to the runway seconds too late and could only watch in dismay as the small mail plane headed towards the Channel.
Questioned later, E Gubbins, one of Matthews’ investors, remained utterly persuaded of the ray’s potency, saying, “I am convinced that the ray is the most terrible invention which has been created in recent years. It is of such a nature that it will make wars impossible if held by Britain. Other countries could not hope to combat a power armed with such a weapon.” Matthews, meanwhile, was again negotiating terms with the French and was met at Le Bourget airfield by Eugene Royer prior to a meeting that evening with the director of the Chantier du Rhône, an important Lyons steel firm.
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 France, announced he now had eight bids under consideration. Charles Dick of the British Consulate in Paris met with Matthews. Dick had investigated Matthews’ French backer, Eugene Royer, and found him to be untrustworthy and on the point of bankruptcy. Matthews seemed unconcerned by this news, happy to work for Royer seemingly to spite the British government for daring to ask for that most vulgar of displays, ‘proof’. Dick’s subsequent letter to the Air Ministry contained a stark character sketch of Matthews, observing: “It would certainly be advisable to recommend the very greatest caution in dealing with Mr Matthews if he is in any way connected with Royer. If such a connection comes about after the warning I gave Mr. Matthews, I should feel obliged to consider that the latter was as unworthy of confidence as the former.”
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 UK. “Our offer still stands. It is made on purely patriotic grounds. Mr Grindell Matthews can have all the money he needs,” said Theodore Instone. Yet Matthews refused this offer too. Perhaps it had something to do with the concluding part of Instone’s statement which read, “…providing he satisfies our scientific advisors that the ray has serious possibilities.” There it was again. The small, but significantly unavoidable matter of conclusive proof that the alleged death ray worked as its inventor claimed. Even the loftiest fortean ideas begin to crumble when they are revealed to be empty promises. And by now, to all but the most gullible observer, the ‘death ray’ was looking very much like an empty promise.
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.
The 1st of June 1924 saw Matthews returning to London, and he was angry. In an interview with the Sunday Express he defended his life’s work even to the point of raging at those who referred to his notorious invention as a ‘ray’. It was, he claimed, a ‘beam’, not a ray, although quite what the difference was he failed to say. Matthews still believed he had a deal with Royer and was insistent his death ray was all packed and ready to be shipped to France for further development.
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 Britain the advantage in many other areas of
warfare such as æronautics and torpedo development. Despite all
the talk of ideas and possibilities, as yet few people outside
Grindell Matthews’ intimate circle had actually seen his death ray
apparatus. This was rectified in the summer of 1924 with the
release of the film The Death Ray. Made by Pathé, the 25-minute
film was basically a drama-documentary, an advertisement for Harry
Grindell Matthews and all his works.
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 Britain and America. It comes as no surprise then that following Matthews’ inability to conclusively demonstrate the death ray he abandoned the quest to sell his invention to European governments and in July departed to America. Once again he set about publicising the death ray, announcing he would develop a higher-powered version of the machine that would convince the world his “beam deserves a place among the great inventions of history”. There were immediate problems when he was offered $25,000 to demonstrate the ray to the Radio World Fair at Madison Square Garden in December. Matthews again declined the offer of easy money, this time claiming that he was not permitted to demonstrate his invention outside England. This is a curious statement as there is no evidence he was under any such constraint, legal or political. Once again, Matthews the showman was taking his game to the brink. He tantalised the American public, telling how he would return to Britain and set up a research station on an island in the Bristol Channel to continue his work so that, “in eighteen months I can perfect my apparatus so that it will be the most formidable war weapon of the future”.
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 ‘America’ (he was vague) had snapped up his death ray invention. Quite where this left his claim that he was not permitted to demonstrate the ray outside England was unclear. Nor was it stated to whom he had sold his ray.
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 America.
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 America where he worked as a consultant for Warner Brothers, putting his genuine skills in sound and vision technology to good use.
By the late 1920s, Matthews was back in Britain with a series of new, bold inventions which actually worked. His piece de resistance was a device to project advertisements on clouds.
On Christmas Eve 1930 he stunned London by projecting the image of an angel onto clouds above Hampstead Heath. The apparition was so realistic that people miles away apparently fell to their knees in worship, believing the Second Coming was at hand! He followed this with demonstrations in New York, where he projected the Stars and Stripes 10,000ft (3,000m) above the city (see below).
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 accomm-odation 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 South Wales. There he became a semi-recluse, building a fortified laboratory with its own private airfield on the summit of Tor Cloud near Swansea. He soon became the subject of local lore and legend, with the police arriving in response to claims that his ‘rays’ were causing illness among the local population. Other stories spread that car engines would stop if they drove too near Matthews’ mountain fastness.
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 London. This idea was discussed seriously by the government but never taken up as a practical proposal. Matthews’ mind, never still, then came up with the idea of the ‘stratoplane’ – a “plane which could fly on the edges of space.” He became a member of the British Interplanetary Society and actively pushed forward ideas which led eventually to the development of rocket technology.
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, London would not have suffered as much as it did in the Blitz. He could now also see how useful his submarine detector would have been against the U-Boats stalking the Atlantic. But it was to no avail. Time had passed him by and on 11 September 1941 Death Ray Matthews died of a massive heart attack.
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 event-ual 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.
the Death Ray
Some background info on the Grindell Matthews episode
Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, in a prophetic speech to the House of Commons in 1932, declared: “it is well for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed... the bomber will always get through.”
Throughout that decade the dreaded German Luftwaffe threatened to bring devastation to cities across Europe, including the British Isles. Consequently, the British Government was desperate to find an effective method of detection or defence and once again turned to a ‘death ray.’
In 1934 the Air Ministry set up the Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defence. CSSAD contained some of the brightest minds of the day, and was chaired by the distinguished Oxford-trained chemist, Sir Henry Tizard, who two decades later would create the MoD’s Flying Saucer Working Party. Tizard’s group scrutinised a number of inventions and ideas, from acoustic mirrors to barrage balloons and eventually turned to the ‘death ray’ which many feared the Germans were already secretly developing.
Following the Grindell Matthews episode, the Air Ministry offered a standing reward of £1,000 to anyone who could build a death ray that could kill a sheep at 100 yards, but no one claimed the prize. On 18 January 1935 H E Wimperis, the director of Scientific Research at the Air Ministry, approached scientist Robert Watson-Watt to advise the government “on the practicability of proposals of the type colloquially called ‘death ray.’” The Tizard committee wanted to know if it was possible to create a beam of electromagnetic energy which could fry enemy pilots in the cockpit, and detonate bombs before aircraft could cause damage, just as Grindell Matthews had proposed a decade earlier.
As Professor R V Jones describes in his Most Secret War, Watson-Watt gave the problem of calculating the amount of power required for a death ray to his assistant, Arnold ‘Skip’ Watkins, who quickly concluded the proposed ray was way ahead of what could be achieved using current technology. When he handed his calculations to Watson-Watt he said: “Well then, if the death ray is not possible, how can we help them?”
Wilkins replied that he was aware that Post Office engineers had noticed that whenever aircraft flew in the vicinity of BBC masts, it caused disturbances to the radio signal. Maybe this phenomenon could be utilised for the detecting enemy aircraft before they reached the British Isles? On 26 February 1935, the day Hitler created the Luftwaffe, Watson-Watt and his assistant set up an experiment at Daventry in Northamptonshire which proved it was possible to detect aircraft by the use of radio waves. As an RAF bomber flew backwards and forwards between two BBC radio masts, the two men sat inside a van watching as a tiny glowing green line flared and swelled on a crude cathode-ray tube display. RDF, or ‘Radar’ (RAdio Detection And Ranging) – the greatest secret weapon in the Allied arsenal - was born. After the demonstration, Watson-Watt declared that Britain “has become an island once more.”
The death ray may never have been a
practical weapon, but those who had taken Grindell Matthews’
advice to “think outside the box” and employ their imaginations
had stumbled upon a weapon with far greater possibilities that
would literally change the world.