Death Rays Are Here… NOW (Dec, 1961)

Listed as an advantage of light beam weapons (lasers): “There is an unlimited supply of light.”

That’s really not how lasers work at all. It’s like saying electricity good because there is an unlimited supply of electrons.

Death Rays Are Here… NOW

IF you had a security clearance, you could walk into any of about 30 laboratories in the United States and Canada and watch a death ray in action. You would hear absolutely nothing. You would see only a harmless looking bluish ray of light emerging from a small hole in one end of a long, complex, electrical apparatus.

The device is an ion beam projector. The blue ray is a stream of ions—charged particles that, in the vacuum of space, could catch and destroy a spy satellite or an orbiting weapon.

The ion gun is but one of several different kinds of futuristic weapons—death rays, they have been called—that are now operating or soon will be. In other laboratories you would see white light from a tiny bulb enter a small steel lens-like chamber and emerge as an intensely hot, blinding flash of red light. Unlike most light beams that spread as they get farther from the bulb, this light produces a tiny, brilliant spot on a wall 40 ft. away.

Melting a Tank. Soon, at an Army Ordnance Corps testing center, you would be able to see the light ray in action against a mock enemy. The tiny bulb would be replaced by a small, high-intensity arc. In another version under development, the bulb would yield to a very thin wire that explodes with a bright flash when overloaded with electrical current. In either case, the result would be the same: A tank lumbers over the crest of a hill almost 1000 yds. away. An Ordnance officer squeezes a hand switch. A small radar antenna revolves once, points toward the tank, and quivers slightly. The tank is now 800 yds. away. The barrel of the optical killer swings toward the tank. Now 500 yds. Then—there is a fleeting, almost imperceptible, flash. The tank stops.

You see a round hole less than a foot in diameter burned smoothly through the heavy armor. For an instant the entire tank was on the verge of melting. Then you notice that the huge tank had been pulled along a track by a chain.

Before the optical gun becomes operational, the Army wants to be able to set the weapon to oscillate enough so that the beam will sweep the entire vehicle, making it virtually disappear, melted by a beam many times hotter than the Sun’s surface.

Weapons of the Future are here. For want of a simpler term, and because they so closely meet the popular image, most people call them simply “death rays.”

Already a tight light beam around which one type of death ray is being built has been fired nearly 25 miles. And even before the death ray is fully developed, scientists say the beam could slightly alter the orbit of a satellite 1000 miles away.

For several years, a University of Illinois scientist was a senior consultant on death rays to the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. Prof. Arnold T. Nordsieck recently left to head the technical specialties department of the General Motors Defense Systems Div., Santa Barbara, Calif. Nobody will say what projects Dr. Nordsieck will conceive and supervise at the company’s elite and highly classified California installation. A look at the Defense Department contract files doesn’t help much either: GM has hundreds of contracts, dozens with classified titles.

This is true, too, of most of the other private contractors active in death ray work. Electro-Optical Systems, Pasadena, Calif., has half a dozen contracts whose titles confirm that the company is deep in advanced weaponry. Texas Instruments, Austin, Tex., and Varian Associates, Palo Alto, Calif., are in the same category.

An indication of what Dr. Nordsieck is capable of doing at Santa Barbara is offered by a top secret paper he delivered at a very hush-hush meeting held in Williamsburg, Va.

Serious Dynamite. In February 1960, the Advanced Research Projects Agency assembled in Williamsburg the top technical men from nearly every major defense contract firm. Over 800 carefully-screened scientists and managers met to hear secret reports on the state of our defense against ballistic missiles. For days, security agents commanded hotels and meeting facilities.

Seriousness of the dynamite served up at the three-day meeting is pointed up by a banquet speech delivered somberly by Dr. Hector Skifter, assistant director of Defense Research and Engineering, in charge of air defense. Dr. Skifter doubted that present methods of missile defense ever would be effective. Until a futuristic weapon could be fully developed, our best defense would lie in an ability to absorb heavy punishment and still re- • tain the power to retaliate. In his highly classified speech (the’ author has seen an unclassified digest) he made it clear that some people would have to be regarded as expendable and that our defense should be concentrated around our retaliatory forces.

It was amid this sort of frank revelation that Dr. Nordsieck delivered what one official observer described as “one of the most intriguing papers” of the meeting: “Particle Accelerators and Radiation Weapons.” Details of the paper are secret. It is known, however, that Dr. Nordsieck presented computer solutions to problems of using death ray weapons in missile defense.

Since Williamsburg, it has become clear to observers who frequent the Pentagon and military research offices that ion beams and light rays and other futuristic weapons have been tapped for our major missile defense effort. Ion beams for use in space and light rays for use in space and on land are just two of the death ray systems moving into advanced weapons arsenals here—and in Russia.

The Russians are readying a system that could poke out the eye of our Samos spy-in-the-sky satellite. Russian scientists also are developing a weapon based on a principle our Air Force checked into and then laughed at because it was first described in a popular magazine instead of a technical journal.

Among the military powers there are about a dozen futuristic weapons systems in various stages of research, development, and production. They fall roughly into eight classes:

1. Coherent light beams.

2. Ion beams.

3. Focused high-flux beams of particles other than ions.

4. “Brute force” electromagnetic radiation.

5. Controlled sound waves.

6. Neutron bombs.

7. Ball lightning and “doughnuts” of pinched plasma.

8. “Blue sky” techniques such as direction-ally controlled earth shocks, multiple explosions in phase, amplification and recycling of low frequency brain waves.

In the United States, work is being done by ARPA and each of the military sex-vices. Most of the Air Force’s basic research in death ray weaponry is under the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, which monitors work at universities, here and in Europe. The Office of Aerospace Research, AFOSR’s new parent organization, also has other work in progress at the Aeronautical Research Laboratories and the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories.

The bulk of the Navy’s work, directed by the Office of Naval Research, centers in the Naval Research Laboratory and the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, both in the Washington, D.C. area.

Lt. Gen. Arthur Trudeau is responsible for coordinating the Army’s research on advanced weapons. Because of its experience and capability in electromagnetic areas, the Signal Corps has made major contributions far beyond communications. The Ordnance Corps has been active on several frontiers of ray weaponry, including light beam weapons.

The Army Chemical Corps has carefully avoided the field, apparently because the Corps already faces public relations problems arising from misunderstanding of its chemical-biological warfare and defense work. Scientists at the Ft. Detrick, Md., Biological Warfare Center, however, have secretly been working in the new science of bionics; they’re trying to use animal sensory organs, wired to automatic alarm systems, as detectors for chemical warfare toxic agents. Research in this science may lead to advances in futuristic weapons that play on neurological reactions.

In Russia, most death ray research is channeled through the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Considerable work on high-powered electromagnetic radiation and ball lightning has been done at the Krzhizhanovsky Power Institute. Reports indicate other work is being done at Moscow University, Leningrad University, and Leningrad Polytechnic Institute. The Soviet Institute of Energetics and Leningrad Polytechnic have controlled ball lightning, and one scientist has described how it would be used as a weapon.

In a suite of offices on the third floor of the Pentagon, our Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) is in its third year of studying and developing Buck Rogerish weapons. It is for the battleground of space—against missile, reconnaissance satellites, and orbiting weapons—that death rays are coming most rapidly. The sci- entists on the third floor have sent progress reports on several futuristic weapons systems to the floor below, to one of the most hush-hush suites of offices in the Pentagon. On each door is a small blue and white card lettered simply—W S E G. This is the Weapons System Evaluation Group, whose evaluations of certain advanced systems by-pass the usual red tape and go directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Exactly what those reports have said is highly classified, but the results are well known.

It Is No Secret that ARPA’s Project Defender gets over $100 million a year to continue its work on solving the missile defense problem by developing systems not related to the Nike-Zeus anti-missile missile. Defender primarily studies conditions of missile flights that make them vulnerable to destruction by advanced weapons.

ARPA sponsors work in every area of possible kill systems. Super-hot light beam, ion beam, and intense-microwave death ray systems already are being pushed close to the speed limit of scientific progress. No reasonable area is being overlooked.

On the contrary, ARPA is exploring even the unreasonable areas. The agency is guiding U.S. scientists into the so-called “impossible” areas by means of project GLIPAR— Guideline Identification Program for Antimissile Research—an intensive effort to spot unorthodox approaches to missile and military satellite defense.

GLIPAR touches even such “impossible” areas as anti-gravity devices and anti-matter weapons. ARPA does not expect to convert the impossible or the improbable into reality; the agency simply uses such areas as levers to pry scientists away from traditional thinking.

Probably as Active as ARPA in ray weaponry is the Air Force. The first reliable public hint of the Air Force death ray work was dropped on April 16, 1959, by Lt. Gen. Roscoe C. Wilson, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Development, giving testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee: Chairman George H. Mahon—”Gen. Wilson, in your statement you referred to research into so-called death rays. In the ARPA presentation we also heard about death ray research. Is your program a part of the ARPA program? If not, how are the programs coordinated?”

Gen. Wilson—”The Air Force death ray program involves research into the possible use of radiation energy as the lethal technique in an Air Force weapon”. This program is not an ARPA program. This Air Force program was fully coordinated with the ARPA by a formal presentation. Further, the Air Force and ARPA programs have been jointly presented to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, Research and Engineering, to ascertain whether funding through DOD emergency funds should be granted these programs in fiscal year 1959.”

The reference to possible use of fiscal year 1959 Department of Defense emergency funds suggests that the DOD either had suddenly discovered a need for death rays, or that somebody had accomplished a breakthrough that would be worth following up immediately. The ARPA testimony referred to was classified. Many times since then, there have been public references to closed-door sessions on death rays.

A Sensitive Subject. The Air Force is very sensitive about its death ray work. When I presented a list of 11 immediately possible death ray weapons for comment, one officer demanded to know where the list originated: “Who released this? Don’t you know this stuff is classified?” Actually, that early list was prepared from a careful reading of unclassified material and talks with physicists.

Another Air Force officer refused to believe that such a list could be compiled from unclassified sources—and added, “Besides, anybody who even asks questions in these areas ought to be investigated.”

The Air Force’s touchiness stems in part from reasons other than military security. Some officers writing or speaking unofficially often speculate wildly. The public often fails to divorce their words from Air Force policy (even though this divorce is clearly stated by the officer) or fails to recognize and appreciate stimulating and imaginative speculation. This leaves the public wrongly charging the Air Force with wasting money on some very weird programs (Fig. 3).

An example is an unofficial article written several years ago. The author discussed the possibility of orbiting sand storms in every probable approach path of Russian ICBM’s. There are at least a dozen reasons why this would not work. The suggestion was offered only as one attempt to stimulate unconventional thinking. But the public grabbed the gist, tied it to the Air Force, and clamored for an end to “such nonsense.”

Little wonder, then, that the Air Force is reluctant to discuss one sand weapon that will work. This is a sand sprayer under study for use on our satellites, such as SAINT, that will intercept and inspect Russian satellites. If the sophisticated sensing instruments on SAINT—Satellite Inspection Technique—decide a Russian satellite is spying or carrying a weapon, SAINT will pepper its lens with a barrage of sand-like grains, or push it out of its potentially dangerous orbit.

The Space Age brought urgent importance to science fiction dream weapons and made feasible many death ray weapons that were impossible of accomplishment on Earth.

Out in space, there is no limit to the size of particles that you can shoot. In a vacuum, there is no difference between a fair-sized projectile made of lead and shaped like a bullet and a much smaller projectile made of silicon dioxide and shaped like a sand grain. Then, why not use projectiles even smaller— say, atoms? Strip an atom of one or more electrons and it becomes a projectile with a charge, an ion.

Ions have size and weight and they move at high speeds. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Air Force, and many private firms are working on rocket engines that will exhaust ions instead of hot chemical gases (Fig. 2).

Weapons designers can make a beam of ions travel many miles at very high speeds, make it as dense or “strong” as needed, and focus it accurately. Says one physicist: “I see absolutely no difference between an ion rocket and a death ray weapon.”

Delivering the Light. Many things will kill people. The problem is delivery. X-rays can kill, but you would almost have to set the X-ray unit on the proposed victim. Even ion projectors and high density electron guns are useless within the atmosphere.

There is one killing ray, however, that transmits through the atmosphere nearly as well as through space—visible light.

Modern solar furnaces use mirrors 3 to 6 ft. in diameter to focus the Sun on metals to be melted. But the metal must be at the mirror’s focal point, usually just 2 or 3 ft. away. A mirror large enough to focus a hot image of the Sun on enemy tanks at usual battle distances would have to be a quarter to a half-mile in diameter.

A way was needed to amplify light and make it “coherent” so its rays could be concentrated in a narrow beam and aimed long distances. Last year Hughes Aircraft Co. announced the development of an optical maser —a light amplifier whose output was a coherent beam. Hughes called it a laser—for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation (see page 94, Nov. ’60 S&M).

Already lasers are at the heart of several types of death rays being developed. One laboratory near the Pentagon claims successful development of a device that will project an intensely hot beam that can burn through steel plate 10 miles away. Bell Telephone Laboratories publicly demonstrated transmission of a thin, intense beam over 23 miles.

Many advantages of a light beam weapon are obvious. The three most important:

1. With light’s high speed there is no need for complex computers to determine how long a lead is needed to take on a fast-moving target; just aim directly at it.

2. A soldier, tank, or spacecraft does not need to carry projectiles.

3. There is an unlimited supply of light.

“Brute Force.” If, in science fiction, there is one weapon that can be called the standard death ray, it is the focused, high-powered electromagnetic beam, the “high-frequency radiation gun.” This is close kin to today’s radar. Indeed, some of our bigger radar antennas require wire shielding to prevent “frying” of nearby persons.

About three years ago, the Air Force looked into such “brute force” weapons possibilities but decided that units would have to be too large and weapons would have to carry the Grand Coulee dam for power.

Does this mean brute force systems have been ruled out forever? Hardly, but the electromagnetic death rays now under study are not really “brute force” weapons, although they still involve high-powered electromagnetic beams.

About the time that the Air Force was washing its hands of monster radiation weapons, Westinghouse Electric Corp. announced its now-famous molecular electronics—moletronics—a technique that literally grows an entire circuit as a tiny crystal.

Thanks to moletronics, the number of parts in a device can be greatly decreased. Needed power inputs have dropped from thousands of watts to just fractions of a watt. Science fiction’s favorite weapons are back in the running, and the Air Force is pursuing them.

The Most Spectacular death ray to watch in action is controlled ball lightning. It is sometimes seen in nature—lightning balls a few inches to over 2 ft. in diameter rolling along power lines after a storm, dancing for several seconds or minutes on fences.

When an electric current passes through a gas, or a mixture of gases such as air, the gas ionizes, becomes a plasma. In nature, just as in laboratories, a portion of the plasma can be “pinched off,” set free. In labs, the result is a plasma ring. In nature, ball lightning.

About 30 years ago, Russian and German physicists learned that high-frequency electromagnetic energy, such as a radar transmitter’s output, can be focused at a distance from the antenna if the antenna diameter is greater than the wavelength.

Prof. Georgi Il’ich Babat at the Soviet Academy of Science’s G. M. Krzhizhanovski Power Institute pointed out in 1959 that an antenna 18-1/2 ft. in diameter, propagating a 1 -cm wave, would produce a lightning ball at a point half a mile from the ground.

Prof. Babat then suggested defending cities with arrays of two huge, movable, radar-like antennas whose focal points would meet wherever needed to vaporize an incoming plane or missile.

Ball lightning normally has a surface temperature of nearly 9000°F. Its discharge produces pressures up to 100,000 psi. This could be a serious threat and Congressmen asked the Air Force to look into it. The Air Force replied that Prof. Babat’s proposals ‘were made in a popular magazine, not in a technical journal, and weren’t worth pursuing.

Laughing It Off? This reply left the impression that the Air Force was not aware of 30 years’ work—reported in the most respected scientific journals—by Prof. Babat. It gave the impression of discounting the huge, well-staffed and equipped ball lightning laboratories just built in Russia. The Air Force seemingly laughed off the radar pro- duction of ball lightning at the Ernst Mach Institute in Freiburg, West Germany.

At that time, the Air Force even appeared to be without knowledge of the large amount of ball lightning research going on in the United States—at Armour Research Foundation, Chicago, and especially the concentrated efforts at the Bendix Research Laboratories, Southfield, Mich. Here, American scientists were routinely producing free space electrodeless discharges.

Maybe the Air Force knew more than it cared to admit. Or perhaps something later changed its attitude. In any event, this contract award appeared last spring: Raytheon Co., Wayland, Mass.; AF 08(635)-1958; $89,000; for High Energy Spherical Plasmoids.

The Air Force told me it could not discuss this contract, nor could it confirm or deny any magazine article describing it as a ball lightning or death ray contract.

Just how close a ball lightning death ray weapon is to operational reality, nobody can say. Informed guesses are that it is in an advanced stage of research or, at best, in an early hardware development stage.

“Bug Him to Death.” Further off are some of the most imaginative futuristic weapons. But they are very definitely under development. Included are small explosions detonated in cones which greatly magnify their force and aim their waves in the desired direction (Fig. 6). Sound waves as killers were studied by the Army, but dropped because they lose their effectiveness as they travel through air. New developments in ultrasonics, though, have brought Army attention back again to sound waves.

The most imaginative concept calls for a sensitive, selective receiver to pick up a soldier’s low-frequency brain waves, amplify them many times, and feed them back to the brain. The waves would drive him crazy instantly—”bug him to death,” says a physicist.

That may sound Buck Rogers-like, but so did this item when it appeared in the 1957 edition of “Inventions Wanted by the Armed Forces,” compiled by the National Inventors Council, an official body organized by the U.S. Department of Commerce: “450. DESTRUCTIVE RAY. — Scope — Equipment of usable size capable of producing destructive or death rays effective at 500 yards without excessive power input . . . Status—Investigations to date indicate that tremendous amounts of power would be required using present techniques and that a completely new approach is indicated.”

Did any inventor come through? When problems have been solved, the National Inventors Council cancels them. The next regular issue of “Inventions Wanted,” 1959, contained a short list of problems cancelled from the 1957 edition. In the list: No. 450.

13 comments
  1. Nomen Nescio says: January 19, 20129:25 am

    melting a tank with a laser beam? somebody failed basic physics. figuring out how much energy you need to do that isn’t too very difficult, and working out that you can’t really generate those on the transmitting end isn’t much harder. laser weapons are still pretty much in the prototypes-only stage.

    meanwhile, sound waves have been pretty successfully weaponized. not as a lethal, battlefield weapon, but as a less-lethal crowd control tool; LRAD‘s have been installed on both military and civilian naval vessels for repelling boarders, and have been successfully used to do just that.

    ion cannons aren’t weapons, not even in space. they CAN be rocket engines for unmanned space probes, though, and have been used as such.

  2. Hirudinea says: January 19, 201211:12 am

    I bought a death ray at the dollar store and play with my cat with it, lasers are neat!

  3. John Savard says: January 19, 201212:14 pm

    As to the comment about an “unlimited supply of light”:

    Well, we could run out of lead or copper, so I think this is a valid advantage of “death rays”, as long as we’re not running out of energy.

  4. Kosher Ham says: January 19, 201212:16 pm

    However, you can focus and concentrate energy from the sun. Several solar furnaces have been built. What kid hasn’t tried to and burnt something with a magnifying lens.

  5. Mike says: January 19, 20122:09 pm

    When lasers were recently invented, they were thought of as the ultimate weapon and this led to all sorts of crazy legislation and regulations. Now they have found more humble jobs such as scanning groceries and really aren’t all that scary. Unless you have one of these: http://en.wikipedia.org…

  6. Hirudinea says: January 19, 20125:20 pm

    @ Mike – Re: Boeing YAL 1, I don’t think my cat would like to play with that. :)

  7. Charlie says: January 20, 20129:03 am

    John: My point was that lasers take in energy in some form and convert it to coherent light. This is totally unrelated to the amount of light available to us. Unless you’re talking about solar powered lasers, in which case I think it might take a little while to charge.

  8. Charlie says: January 20, 20129:04 am

    Mike: If you want to go for a slightly larger laser, there is always NIF: https://lasers.llnl.gov…

  9. Jayessell says: January 21, 201211:39 am

    “Dreadful technique!
    You’ve confused rays with beams!
    D! Minus!
    I’d give you an F, but that would only mean having to see you in summer school.”

    (Obscure?)

  10. GaryM says: January 24, 20121:02 pm

    Death ray surgery to correct your vision!
    Death ray printers!
    Professors with death ray pointers in the classroom!

    The author probably isn’t in marketing.

  11. Don F says: January 24, 20122:17 pm

    DEATH RAY KITTY TOY!!

  12. Toronto says: January 24, 20122:59 pm

    Death ray sailboats!

  13. Jari says: January 25, 201211:46 am

    This text have just traveled thousands of kilometers thanks to the death rays!

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