What comes to mind when people think of a death ray?
Danger, likely. Evilness, destruction. Generally not anything good or nice. After all, it’s called a death ray, not a ‘zap the evil and spare the innocents’ ray. It also happens to be the go-to generic weapon for a supervillain. Do you have a well-written villain with a plot to take over the world, but you lack a weapon? Rig up a microwave and a laser pointer and call it a death ray. A death ray implies the death of innocents and scoundrels -- essentially, the death of all. A death ray implies a total evil weapon.
However, as we’ve seen before, there’s a couple of different shades of evil. There’s ‘has a good intention but goes about it in an evil way’, there’s ‘some injustice was done and now they’re evil as retaliation’, and then there’s Nazis.
The Nazis get the death ray.
So that’s what we’ll be talking about today. The sort of villain who gets the death ray, and then famous death rays throughout history -- and even a little bit about why we think of the death ray as something exclusively, intrinsically evil when there’s been examples of not-evil death rays.
Let’s start with our villain.
Baron Heinrich Zemo was a straight-up literal Nazi scientist. He was first introduced in 1964 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as your typical evil genius. Primarily portrayed as one of Captain America’s nemeses, Zemo was known for creating some powerful weapons for Hitler : androids, pistols, and what relates to us most today, a death ray. He would test the death ray on civilians, slaughtering hundreds.
Although he was cruel and intelligent, those traits alone do not a Marvel villain make. He revealed his grand weapon during a stand-off with Captain America during the height of WWII. Adhesive X was unable to be dissolved by anything. During the tousle, he was pushed into a vat of the stuff which fused his pink hood (worn for some attempt at anonymity) to his face. Following this incident and the end of WWII, he fled to South America where he would stay until Captain America was revived in the 21st century.
So, now you’ve got a general idea for the type of person Baron Zemo is. Tall, dark, and maniacal. Exactly the kind of guy who’d build a device that has no moral value. Let’s talk about them some more.
The first point in history of this ‘death ray’ idea belongs to Archimedes. Although it’s generally taken to be a myth, Archimedes built a series of mirrors that would burn the ships coming in during the Siege of Syracuse. How?
They were positioned in such a way that they’d form a parabolic reflector. Essentially, they take in light from all directions and bring it to a common focal point. From there, then, it can be transmitted outward to focus on some other, distant point. Like the wood of a ship.
Sounds fake, right?
The science is actually sound. They use it today. For the Olympics, they use a series of parabolic mirrors in order to harness the sun’s energy to set fire to the Olympic Torch. Much fancier than a lighter and some balled up newspaper!
But that’s a torch, and this is a ship. The Mythbusters busted it, after all. But after they tested it, a group at MIT tested it again almost a year later. What did they find?
It could happen.
The conditions had to be perfect (no cloud cover at all), the mirrors had to be close (100 ft), and there had to be a lot of them (127 in the successful test). Their main issue was how quickly the ‘hot spot’ (the ideal position of the mirrors for the sun to strike) moved, but eventually, they got that wood ship burning.
Is that generally what we think of when we think of a ‘death ray’? Nah. Most people don’t even call it a death ray; it’s Archimedes’ ‘heat ray’. There’s no connotation of death or destruction, there. So when did that happen?
Generally speaking, it was a perfect storm.
I’ve spoken before about how the discovery of radiation, electricity, and atomic power contributed to the comic book world. Suddenly, there’s this new invisible form of power that you simply can’t prepare for. You could prepare for the creepy guy next to you with a club, but a nuclear bomb? A shock of electricity? How could you prepare for that?
And while there was some fear mongering in WWI about death rays, it really reached a head in WWII. Suddenly, the death ray was connected to the idea of ‘enemy’ and ‘war’ and ‘evil’. There was probably more talk about ‘death’ rays than there were actual death rays -- but, still, that didn’t mean they didn’t exist.
For example, the Japanese tried to create a death ray called Ku-Go which utilized large-scale microwaves to create a focused beam of radiation. This ended up being an exaggeration - radiation takes a while to kill people, even massive amounts of it. Even some of the most irradiated places on Earth (which we’ve talked about, which were created on accident) take a few minutes to kill you while standing directly in it.
Another exaggerated claim was that of Rolf Wideroe’s work. Now we’re getting to the Nazis.
Wideroe was a scientist who worked mainly in particle acceleration. Just what it sounds like - speeding particles up. You’ve probably heard of a very famous particle accelerator : the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) over at CERN. When the Nazis won in Germany, Wideroe started to work for them and share his research. Rumors came out that he was making a proper, actual death ray made using gamma rays involving a type of particle accelerator called a betatron.
Much later, it was found out that the papers also exaggerated the power of this.
However, rumors still hurt and fear mongering is still dangerous. The idea of the death ray in popular thought had been cemented and Baron Zemo could never be anything but a dangerous Nazi.
Death rays are not used by good-hearted villains or rebels with a cause. They are used by only the most evil, like Baron Zemo. Zemo was a Marvel Nazi scientist who created a death ray that ended up killing hundreds of civilians as an experiment. It’s hard to get much more evil than that.
However, death rays weren’t always thought of as evil. Archimedes’ death ray was simply a heat beam used to destroy incoming ships. The true negative connotations came in using ol’ WWII propaganda. The Germans and the Japanese both had a death ray in theory, but neither of them were viable for use as weapons. Combine that with the natural fear of the power of something you couldn’t see (ie, atomic power) and it was sealed - death rays were massive causes of destruction, used only by the evil.
Archimedes Death Ray
WWII Death Rays