Directed Energy Weapons, or ‘Ray Guns‘, go back to the alleged use by the Ancient Greeks of parabolic mirrors to set ships alight, but it was science fiction that created the modern idea. If we exclude Jules Verne’s 1875 Leyden Ball (a ball baring based electric Taser) the first use of such weapons in Sci Fi was the Heat Ray of the Martians from H G Well’s War of the Worlds written from 1898. Today this would be called an infra-red laser, though it had far more power than such a real weapon could ever deliver. The term Ray Gun was invented much later for The Black Star Passes by John W Campbell from 1930. A light based laser was first described, surprising accurately, in Sci Fi in the form of a truck based ‘light cannon’, The Standish, by E E Doc Smith in 1934, long before their invention in the 1960s. Its main use was shooting down aircraft, a role played by advanced modern lasers since the late 90s (more fanciful versions included Nat Shreckton’s Concentrated Light weaponry from 1937, and possibly Edmond Hamilton’s vague Beam Pistol of 1938).
Garrett P. Serviss’ 1898 novel Edison’s Conquest of Mars had used a more fanciful weapon, the Disintegrator Gun, or the Disintegrator Ray as George Griffith called it in his later 1911 fantasy tale (it was also known elsewhere as the De-atomiser Ray in 1928 and the Disruptor Ray or Annihilator Beam in tales from early 1930s). This idea was further popularized in the Buck Rogers stories throughout 30s (and famously in the 1950s movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, miraculously only affecting inanimate objects). A Disintegrator Beam’s operation was vague and fanciful, but the general idea was that it interfered with the electromagnetic forces holding atoms together, causing matter to be totally ionized. While plausible there is still no scientific theory of how this could be achieved. A similar idea was Edmond Hamilton’s the Blue Ray of Death from 1926, which somehow turned organic matter to a pile of ash in one hit (a kind of induced spontaneous combustion). Another popular idea was the Blaster from When the Green Star Waned, by Nictzin Dyalhis, 1925 (aka the Lewiston of E E Doc Smith from 1934, or the Blast Rifle of Frank Belknap Long jnr. from 1937). These weapons were often superficially said to be ‘disintegrators’, but were actually just zapping targets with sudden discharges of energy. It was left to Belknap Long to first explain this mechanism, which was said to be a blast of positronic anti-matter that blew apart all matter on contact. A very short range affect in fiction, flaring away in contact with air, while in reality probably exploding the weapon as soon as it fired, assuming the anti-matter could be contained in such a small device. Others preferred ordinary atomic matter blasts, such as the Proton Pistol described in A Menace in Miniature, by Raymond Z Gallun, published by Astounding Stories, a little later in 1937, as if the high energy nuclear cyclotron, invented in 1932, could be miniaturized and contained in a hand gun (even today they fill buildings). Stranger still was Fritz Leiber’s Force Pencil, an emitter of invisible kinetic energy, more akin to psychokinesis than technology.
However these fantasy weapons were perfectly plausible compared to John W Campbell’s 1934 Darkness Bomb, or the Cold Ray (Edmund Hamilton, 1927) and Zero Ray (Clark Ashton Smith, 1931), the exact opposites of the Heat Ray, absorbing heat energy from an object and freezing it! Or even the Light Sabre, first described in 1943 as a Rod of Wrath by Fritz Leiber (though admittedly today there is genuine research into ‘solid light’, slow photons with matter like properties, so perhaps less absurd now).
Other more realistic variants in early fiction included Sonic Beams that shock objects apart, Victor Appleton’s Electric Rifles from 1911, based on airborne electrical discharges (much like a modern electro-laser), as well as various Paralysis Beams, first mentioned in 1927 by Edmond Hamilton, as a ‘neural inhibitor’ (along with his 1928 ‘neural stimulating’ Pain Ray). The latter has a theoretical basis in modern maser research, thought to be able to inhibit muscular action rather than nerves (and possibly able to cause heart attacks), if tuned to the right frequency, though this has never been achieved.
It was not until WWII that such fiction moved closer to fact, as some of these were attempted by German scientists, though with little success. An attempted Heat Ray required too large a parabolic mirror to be practical while a Sonic Weapon had a limited range, though caused disorientation and could theoretically rupture important internal organs at any range less than 100 yards. But both used large parabolic dishes susceptible to enemy fire. An aborted experiment used a hand held Mini-Cyclotron (looking something like the weapon used by the first Cybermen in Dr Who’s the Tenth Planet) which emitted bursts of hard X Rays, aiming to cook the victim inside out, but it was never tested. German Scientists quickly established that the limitation of all such weapons was their vast energy requirements and the durability of their components during any extreme energetic discharge. But they continued with the development program till the end of the war. In Britain scientists were commissioned to create similar weapons based on high powered microwaves, but soon abandoned the project (one spin off technology that they turned to instead was the development of Radar, which proved highly successful). The United States benefited from a wave of German and Jewish refugee scientists in the 1930s, who worked on the invention of the Laser, though it remained on the drawing board throughout WWII and was not completed till the early 1960s. Rumour has it that the Soviets experimented with portable Tesla Coils for battlefield use, but there is no indication of their reliability or even much evidence of their use.
This Nazi experimentation actually appears to have had a legacy in Science Fiction, where in the Classic Doctor Who series both the Daleks and Cybermen (barely disguised fascist metaphors in their own way) used what we would today call X Ray lasers. The famous negative image special effect clearly symbolized this, and the later skeletal affect even more so, with some literal possibility as we shall see. In the case of the Cybermen this was publicly stated as such by the author Kit Pedlar, a Medical Scientist. High energy X Ray lasers have the capacity to cause bones to flash and to irradiate and fry internal organs (making the skeleton briefly visible through flesh if energized enough). The earliest Cyber Weapons look like mini-cyclotrons, while their later weaponry was more gun-like and emitted small puffs of vapour and muzzle flashes, possibly due to slight ionization and heating from lower frequency X Rays near the muzzle (though they also electrocute their victims in various ways). The Dalek’s weaponry is not so clearly stated, but in addition to the imagery it was originally stated that Dalek weapons destroy internally while leaving the external body surface untouched, a hallmark of both X Ray and Sonic weapons. There are counter-indications of this however. Cyber Weapons produced no beam, and X Rays are invisible, yet the Dalek weapons from the late 70s do show blue beams, unlike their earlier manifestation which didn’t, or in early film versions produced a large puffs of vapour (though perhaps, as with Cyber Weapons, this indicates atmospheric heating from an invisible laser beam in a cold, moist environment). Also later revival Dalek weapons produce both a beam and sometimes an electrocution instead of irradiation. This is more like an electro-laser, which uses a UV laser beam to ionize air, then a micro-second later discharges voltage down this channel like a Taser, or more accurately a lightning flash (such ionized channels can also guide natural lightning or discharges from high voltage sources, but also dangerously attract them to the weapon holder, depending on the angle channel and environmental conditions). It may be that the Daleks are being envisioned in these latter cases as changing the frequencies of their laser weapons (UV being one step down from X Ray), plus adding an electrical discharge from their shields. The use of beams with an X Ray effect is more puzzling (perhaps is simply a secondary visible laser for targeting information). An important caveat with the Daleks is that their history spans nearly 4000 years, and so advancements are to be expected. In addition all high energy lasers will tend to cause combustion, or even explosion, when trained on flammable objects for more than a moment (a fact played to the full by special effects departments. The other Nazi experimental weapon, the Sonic Beam, was upgraded and given to the Ice Warriors as ultrasound disrupters (the War Games aliens also seemed to use Ultrasonic Beams of some kind).
A wide range of other weapons were used in the 50 years of Doctor Who, typically the stock laser beam, but most notable was the Time Lord Staser, which stunned but could also burn up organic matter (having little effect on inorganic matter and armour). That would be consistent with a microwave lasers, which could theoretically paralyze or knock out individuals through inducing charges in muscles, if tuned to the right frequency, as well as fry the outer surface of organic matter, burning badly at higher energy, killing instantly at the highest (though bouncing off solid surfaces). Bodies were often unidentifiable after a Staser burn and could not regenerate. C.M. Kornbluth first mentioned the Stun Pistol in his 1941 story Fire-Power. It was elaborated in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories from 1952 onwards, and in 1965 became a staple element Frank Herbert’s Dune as well as his later stories. There are no clear mechanisms in either, but the implication is that these are microwave devices. A version of the Microwave Beam also featured strongly in a Peter Watts‘ story from 2006, here causing anything from a burning pain on heated flesh to spontaneous combustion. But Watt’s also adopted the myth that Microwaves cook meat inside out, a popular misconception. A major problem with this is the question of how individual targets could be selected by such a radiation burst isn’t clearly stated (though the general area affect of early Dalek blasts may reflect this issue). Real Microwave weapons have been developed by the American military and used in war zones with variable affect. The weapon operates via a parabolic dish on a Humvee and can generate enough heat in organic targets within its range to cause minor burns or great pain. But under many conditions the energy dissipates and simply creates a warm feeling in the target! Other weapons of note in the Doctor Who series included the Disintegrator Guns of the Judoon and the Charged Particle Blasters of races like the Sontarans. The latter increasing adopted in the series against armoured foes like the Daleks, whose shielding was proof against bullets, lasers and most radiation weapons. The Sontaran officers also carried a versatile laser wand that could kill an unarmored target, but could also ionize and activate circuits and even use light effects to hypnotize victims!
Particle Beam weapons were the hot topic after WWII. Initially most Science Fiction ‘Ray Guns’ were simply more developed versions of the pre-war types, and some researchers continued in their attempts to emulate them. This trend continued on the fringes of popular fiction. For instance in 1957 Ayn Rand wrote of the fictitious Project X, a super ultrasound weapon that could destroy organic or inorganic structures several miles distant! But further into the nuclear age Particle Beams were mooted as possible real world energy weapons, a realistic version of the Proton Pistol, other research having proved disappointing or rejected as impossible. These would soon become the dominant type of ‘Ray Gun’ in post war Science Fiction. Particle Accelerators and Atomic Reactions could produce deadly channeled blasts of subatomic particles (typically electrons, positrons, protons or ionized atoms), all they needed was a neutralizing chamber to reduce their charge and their mutual repulsion in order to concentrate them into a beam. In this respect while looking like beam weapons they were actually high tech shot guns that could blow apart molecules. But their channels or barrels were at best perceived as cannon sized by scientists and their accelerators would have to be huge. Arthur C. Clarke envisaged a realistically large particle beam weapon in his 1955 novel Earthlight, in which energy would be delivered by high-velocity beams of matter (ionized metal in this case) which looked like electric bolts or beams of energy. These ideas were influenced by real attempts to create real particle weapons but were increasingly idealized, and eventually Sci Fi writers were describing Muon Blasters, often as hand held weapons.
This was later briefly overshadowed by the invention of the laser in the 1960s, which became the standard Ray Gun for a while. But as its limitations became apparent – given its low energy it had the sole ability to punch small holes in metal objects – it largely gave way to the Particle Beam as the weapon of choice for both Sci Fi characters and real life military research, particularly in space. A classic example of this shift was the Phaser of the Star Trek series. Armed at first with Laser Guns Star Fleet soon adopted Phasers, which while looking like the older laser beams in operation were actually Particle Beam weapons based on imaginary Nadions (with convenient Photon like properties!), which could miraculously stun, blast or disintegrate depending on energy settings. The limitations of existing particles were often overcome by imaginary ones. The Minovsky Particles of Yoshiyuki Tomino from 1979 were malleable ‘designer particles’ given any desired property for use in advanced weaponry. All of this was pure fantasy of course, but more authentic variants were deployed in realist fiction, and by the late 70s Blasters and Ion Cannons had become standard in films such as Star Wars. Yet only the largest shipborne guns were still anything like possible real world weapons. Old favourites were sometimes brought out to counter these, particular in Star Trek, where charged Plasma Weapons were a more ‘primitive threat’, and Phased Polaron Cannons were dangerous antimatter weapons among more advanced races (how the anti-matter was contained in hand held material devices was never explained!). Many other peer races used the Disruptor, a weapon that fired particle blasts that somehow interfered with molecular bonds atomizing their target area.
Of these examples only the Plasma weaponry is scientifically plausible given contemporary Physics. Superheated ions of gas projected electromagnetically that are not as highly energized as particle weapons but super heated. The most realistic of which was the PIG cannon from the Alien film series. A device in which plasma was generated by electrolasers in a magnetic containment backpack and fired through a long barreled weapon, like a high tech flame thrower. But more aesthetic hand held Phased Plasma Guns (PPGs) found their way into the Babylon Five series. With many equivalents found in contemporary fiction.
Modern real world developments include the aforementioned electrolaser, which channels lightning bolts, as well as more high powered lasers that can produce enough structural damage to shoot down aircraft or explode missiles from truck mounted cannon.
While exotic weapons like the Microwave and Ultrasound projectors are still underdevelopment. More dangerous ionizing X Ray radiation is difficult to target and not widely researched today (as far as is known). Lasers are limited by how much energy can be fed into the emitter and its own characteristics. The best emitters are gas based rather than crystal based, but tend to be depleted faster. These are energized by electrodes, or even small nuclear explosions, and are able to pass their energy onto the focused light beam passed through them, its wavelength dependent on the type of gas used and its power on how highly energized it can be. All seem to have low ceilings for their energization level and so of limited power, though some weaponisable lasers are in production that are reducible to bazooka scale. A new generation of lasers use cathode ray tubes and powerful magnetic fields to highly energize speeding electrons, that can transfer energy to photon beams to a much higher degree. But these are still very bulky devices. Particle Beam weapons are also still very large but under well funded research in SDI programs.
In theory many of the more plausible weapons described in Sci Fi are possible, even as hand held weapons. A major problem is the power requirement, and the way projected energy dissipates in the air when released, even at the muzzle of such weapons. But all that is needed is a sufficiently strong miniature power unit to energize them and materials strong enough to take the constant heat. Neither of which are currently available but may be in the future. Nano-technology super batteries and nano-scale nuclear reactions are often cited as possible solutions, as well as new super materials capable of withstanding huge amounts of energy channeled through them. The Ray Gun will no doubt one day be a reality.