Let's play a game. Which of the three quotes below is from a piece of pulp science fiction? " ... death ray that will bring down airplanes, halt tanks on the battlefields, ruin automobile motors and spread a curtain of death like the gas clouds of the recent war." "At one hundred kilometers, all the bullets of the soldiers, all the belts of the machine guns, all the shells loaded in the cannons, all the bombs, all the grenades, ... all will explode. The blue rays will leave nothing, not even a gram of explosive ... " "Think of it as a death ray sweeping across an advancing army's front - picture each gun sparkling like a superstatic machine, charring each soldier's hand and arm." Not terribly obvious, is it? The answer is the last quote from Eando Binder's "Static" published in the December 1936 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Death rays were showing up in popular novels like the source of our second quote, from the 1917 French novel La Machine a finir la guerre (The Machine to End War) by Roland Dorgeles and Regis Gignoux. And I don't mean science fiction writers. Most of these authors didn't think they were writing anything really fantastic by contemporary standards. And neither did a surprising number of critics and reviews who commented on the plausibility of the death-rays. In fact, some literary critics, including G. K. Chesterton, complained about how death rays showed up everywhere. Anarchists wielded them. Idealists hoped to they would make weapons useless and end war. Swindlers used them to pull insurance scams. Garden variety killers got a hold of them. People hoping to crash the international gold standard turned to them. And given how much they were talked about in the news, in science journals, and by a host of people including Thomas Edison, Nickola Tesla (of course), Winston Churchill, Stanley Baldwin, and Oliver Lodge, why would they be considered fantastic? This book is rife with quotes from European, Australian, New Zealand, and American newspapers about purported death ray research. Technically, what's usually talked about are "motor stopping rays", specifically stopping plane engines because the big fear of the inter-war years were planes dropping bombs and gas on civilian populations because, as was famous noted, "the bomber will always get through" as Stanley Baldwin said in 1932. (This fear is best remembered today in the beginning of the filmed version of H. G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come.) The actual term "death ray" goes back to an 1898 newspaper story. Many of the stories from the interwar years are concerned with "the next year" -- already a common term by 1921. (That first quote is from a May 24, 1924 story in the Chicago Tribune.) There are three large historic events in the story: the claims of Ulivi to have invented a death ray in 1913 and offering to the Italian, British, and French governments; the mysterious stoppings of French plane engines over Bavaria in 1923; and Grindell Mathews, another inventor who claimed to have invented a death ray and offered it for sale in 1923. In the years from 1924 to 1939, death rays were simply considered to be real weapons or on the verge of being invented. Only a few scientists rightly pointed out that, while theoretically possible, there were large practical constraints to their military use (like energy and range). A few real tests were carried out - mostly animals killed at very short ranges. The belligerent nations of World War II actually continued researching the possibility of death rays and, indirectly, some claim it led to radar research though Fanning mostly covers that in a post-1939 coda. Fanning writes clearly and concisely. Everything is scrupulously sourced and indexed. Alas, there are no photos. This book should definitely appeal to anyone with an interest in the popular mystery and suspense novels of the period (several plot synopsis are given) as well as the pulps, forteana (all those newspaper stories of death ray inventors and mysteriously stopped car engines), crank science, and the technofolklore of the past.
Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876-1939 - eBook
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Death rays! Absurd idea peddled by con artists and amateurs and promoted by a sensationalist press? Not quite. Government and military leaders and mainstream scientists endorsed the possibility of such a fantastic weapon in the years before World War II. A concept born out of research with electricity and other energy sources, the death ray or "directed energy weapon" was widely reported for nearly five decades. Claims for its invention appeared as early as 1876, and increased thereafter, until the "death-ray craze" of the 1920s and 1930s. The idea influenced fiction, making its way from newspapers and magazines into novels, short stories, films, theatrical productions and other media. This book takes a first-ever look at the historical death ray and its impact on fiction and popular culture.Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876-1939 - eBook
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William J. Fanning
I received this book t...
I received this book through the Early Reviewers program and thought the subject seemed interesting. As a fan of old science fiction and horror movies and also old radio shows and science fiction novels I thought this might be ideally suited to my reading tastes. It is an extremely well researched and crafted book full of information on the title subject. But as I have come to realize with other McFarland books I have read, it is a very scholarly written book. Dry and not really palatable to a casual readers taste. The author does a wonderful job reciting facts on the history of the Death Ray in popular media as well as military history, but this is written for a more erudite reader. It could use a little more levity, rather than just reciting the facts.
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