Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876–1939

A Study of Directed Energy Weapons in Fact, Fiction and Film


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About the Book

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.

About the Author(s)

William J. Fanning, Jr., teaches history at All Saints’ Episcopal School in Fort Worth, Texas, and has written for the Journal of Military History. His primary research area has been the German army in World War II.

Bibliographic Details

William J. Fanning, Jr.
Format: softcover (6 x 9)
Pages: 280
Bibliographic Info: notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2015
pISBN: 978-0-7864-9922-9
eISBN: 978-1-4766-2192-0
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Preface   1

Introduction   7

Part I: The Historical Death Ray

1. An Idea Is Born: Harnessing Directed Energy as a Weapon, 1876–1918   21

2. The Catalyst Years, 1919–1924   49

3. The ­Death-Ray Craze, 1925–1939   76

4. Death Rays and Their Connection to the Second World War   106

Part II: The Death Ray in Fiction and Popular Culture

5. Early Death-Ray Novels and Short Stories   123

6. Death-Ray Novels and Short Stories of the Interwar Years   149

7. Death Rays in Other Media: Movies, Theater, Pulps, Radio and Humor   184

Conclusion   217

Chapter Notes   221

Bibliography   255

Index   265

Book Reviews & Awards

• “An entertaining, exhaustively researched account of every warmonger’s dream weapon… All of this is fascinating.”—Filmfax

• “In addition to scholars of popular fiction, and especially detective, crime, and science fiction, military historians interested in next war projections and the intersection of popular culture and military concerns will also find it useful”—H-Net

• “A wealth of information…a fine volume”—SFCrowsnest