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The first ray gun

By Stephen R. Wilk


When reporting on the origin of that science fiction cliché, the ray gun or death ray, most histories cite H.G. Wells’ classic story The War of the Worlds, which first appeared in Pearson’s Magazine between April and December of 1897. Wells was undoubtedly one of the founders of science fiction, striving to create original situations and ideas. The Martian Heat Ray, like the use of gas warfare, is completely unlike Western weapons of the day, and marks the Martian culture as a truly different and alien one.

Alien tripod illustration by Alvim Corréa, from the 1906 French edition of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds". Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Alien tripod illustration by Alvim Corréa, from the 1906 French edition of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But Wells was not the first to write about alien invaders from another world, armed with superior technology — including heat rays — with which they invaded an unsuspecting earth and conquered it as Europeans had conquered the Americas and elsewhere. The story had been told almost a century earlier. The story of how it first appeared takes us back to the newspapers of the beginning of the nineteenth century.

On 26 October 1809, the following advertisement appeared in The New York Evening Post:

Distressing
Left his lodgings, some time since, and has not since been heard of, a small elderly
gentleman, dressed in an old black coat and cocked hat, by the name of
Knickerbocker. As there are some reasons for believing he is not entirely in his right
mind, and as great anxiety is entertained about him, any information concerning
him left either at the Columbian Hotel, Mulberry Street, or at the office of this
paper, will be thankfully received.
P.S. Printers of newspapers would be aiding the cause of humanity in giving an
insertion to the above.

This was followed a week later by a letter in the same newspaper:

To the Editor of The Evening Post
Sir – Having read in your paper of the 26th October last, a paragraph respecting an old gentleman by the name of Knickerbocker, who was missing from his lodgings; if it would be any relief to his friends, or furnish them with any clue to discover where he is, you may inform them that a person answering the description given, was seen by the passengers of the Albany stage, early in the morning, about four or five weeks since, resting himself by the side of the road, a little above King’s Bridge. He had in his hand a small bundle, tied in a red bandana handkerchief; He appeared to be travelling northward, and was very much fatigued and exhausted.

A Traveller

This was answered on 16 November by another letter:

To the Editor of The Evening Post
Sir – You have been good enough to publish in your paper a paragraph about Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker, who was missing so strangely some time since. Nothing satisfactory has been heard of the old gentleman since; but a very curious kind of a written book has since been found in his room, in his own handwriting. Now I wish you to notice him, if he is still alive, that if he does not return and pay off his bill for boarding and lodging, I shall have to dispose of his book to satisfy me for the same.

– I am, sir, Your Humble Servant
Seth Handaside
Landlord of the Independent
Columbian Hotel
Mulberry Street

On 6 December 1809, the following advertisement appeared in The American Citizen:

A History of New York
from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty
This work was found in the Chamber of
Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker,
The old gentleman whose sudden and mysterious disappearance has been noticed.
It is published in order to discharge certain
Debts he has left behind.

The full title of the work, which is rarely given, suggests that this is not a serious work. “From the Beginning of the World…” is expected, but that final “…to the End of the Dutch Dynasty” suggests that the author, with the ultra-Dutch name of “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” thinks the end of Dutch rule in New York is comparable to The End of the World.

In fact, no such person as Diedrich Knickerbocker ever existed. The name was affixed to the satirical history of New York by its real author, and the series of advertisements were done to drum up excitement and interest — what we would today call a viral marketing campaign. (In light of which, the postscript to the first entry was a sly way of getting other newspapers to spread the story for free.)

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis , 1809. Historic Hudson Valley. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809. Historic Hudson Valley. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The real author of the book was a 26-year-old writer, satirist, editor, and lawyer named Washington Irving, today better known for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip van Winkle. As in his prior writings, he used this nominal history to poke fun at his fellow New Yorkers. In the opening portion, he took issue with European and American attitudes toward Native Americans and their treatment by the American settlers. How, he asked, would his compatriots feel if the inhabitants of the Moon were to similarly conquer them?

To return, then, to my supposition—let us suppose that the aerial visitants I have mentioned, possessed of vastly superior knowledge to ourselves—that is to say, possessed of superior knowledge in the art of extermination—riding on hippogriffs—defended with impenetrable armor—armed with concentrated sunbeams, and provided with vast engines, to hurl enormous moonstones; in short, let us suppose them, if our vanity will permit the supposition, as superior to us in knowledge, and consequently in power, as the Europeans were to the Indians when they first discovered them.

“Armed with concentrated sunbeams.” What could have inspired that thought of non-traditional, non-Western weaponry almost a century before Wells? Eight years previously William Herschel (discoverer of the planet Uranus) had observed that the mercury in a thermometer rose when placed in the portion of a spectrum beyond the observed red rays. This indicated the presence of a new and invisible form of light which he called Calorific Rays, and which we today call infrared light. A year later Johann Wilhelm Ritter looked for similarly invisible light at the opposite end of the spectrum and discovered invisible rays that could turn silver chloride-treated paper black. Today his Chemical Rays are called ultraviolet light.

But there was a more direct inspiration than these discoveries of previously unknown forms of light. In 1807 François Peyrard, Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at the Lycée Bonaparte, had published his translation of the works of Archimedes with his own commentaries and experimental results. One of the more striking events in the book was the description of Archimedes’ supposed schemes for the defense of Syracuse against the Roman fleet about 212 BCE. The most memorable of these was the creation of an enormous concave mirror, made up of smaller individual mirrors arranged on a frame. With this, Archimedes was said to be able to set fire to ships in the Roman fleet from a distance. Peyrard performed his own experiments with mirrors and believed the scheme could work. Irving had traveled in Europe between 1804 and 1806, and might have heard of Peyrard’s work. Certainly such destruction without mechanical agent and from a great distance would meet his requirement of superior and different technology. No one seems to have followed up on this suggestion of ray weapons for a long time.

In the decades prior to Wells’ book, there had been much work on electrical discharges, which produced exotic new “rays.” Cathode Rays (electrons), Canal Rays (protons), and X-rays (even shorter wavelengths than ultraviolet) had been discovered before The War of the Worlds was written. Radioactivity, made up of the later-named alpha rays, beta rays, and gamma rays, was to follow, so the idea of new forces was in the air. Nonetheless, when Wells finally came to describe the origin of the Martian Heat Ray, it was suggested to be a highly collimated beam of infrared radiation.

Unknown to Wells at the time, and without his permission, his work was being serialized in the United States in the Boston and New York newspapers. After the run was completed, the editor of the Boston Post demanded a sequel. Moreover, he wanted one where, unlike in Wells’ original story, the people of Earth were able to effectively fight back and eventually win. Garrett P. Serviss responded with Edison’s Conquest of Mars, which ran from February to 13 March in 1898. In it, not only do Earth engineers invent rockets to bring the fight to Mars, but Thomas Edison (only 51 then and still very active in business) appears as a character in the story and invents a new beam weapon to counter the Martian heat ray — the Disintegrator. Until then, the term “Disintegrator” had been used for a type of mill, but now it was applied to a device that generated electrical vibrations that caused matter to selectively decompose.

In later years, many other authors were to appropriate the name “Disintegrator” along with the method of effectively dissolving matter, most notably Philip F. Nowlan and his character Buck Rogers. And with that, ray guns were off and running in popular fiction.

Stephen Wilk is a contributing editor for the Optical Society of America and the author of How the Ray Gun Got Its Zap: Odd Excursions into Optics and Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon. He holds a Ph.D. in Physics and has worked on Laser Propulsion and High Energy Lasers at Textron and MIT’s Lincoln Labs, and has designed and built optical apparatus at Optikos Corporation, Cognex, and AOtec. He was previously a visiting professor at Tufts and a visiting scientist at MIT.

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Recent Comments

  1. Andy

    Typo:
    A year later Johann Wilhelm Ritter looked for similarly invisible light at the opposite end of the spectrum and discovered invisible rays that could turn silver chloride-treated paper back.

    “black”

  2. […] For those interested in learning more, I should point out that Stephen has written a blog post at Oxford University Press on “The first ray gun,” and that he has a blog about his writing at […]

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