Britain’s Attempt to Make a ‘Death Ray’

Britain’s Attempt to Make a ‘Death Ray’ How Did It Change the Course of World War II?

In the early 1930s, Britain found itself in a very uncertain position. Military theorists predicted that the next war would be dominated by air force and the threat of aerial bombardment; They were quite right about that too. With the rise of Nazi Germany, the British suddenly felt very vulnerable. Britain had initiated a series of projects to address this problem, hoping to mitigate the threat. Among them was a high-tech “death ray” that could shoot down enemy aircraft in the air.

But although such a weapon could not be developed in the project, something that could be much more useful emerged. This technological breakthrough would become an integral part of the victory over the Nazis during the Battle of Britain.

Bomber always succeeds

The British had good reason to worry. The horrors of World War I were still fresh in people’s minds. These included the memory of first-generation German bombers and zeppelins that rained terror from the air. But in terms of possible countermeasures, they had little.

In just two decades, England had lost its unparalleled supremacy as an island nation. The country, with its powerful navy, had protected itself from outside attacks for hundreds of years; but new aerial technologies had changed everything.

In fact, aircraft had improved dramatically since the Great War, and short-range anti-aircraft guns had become nearly useless. Also, since enemy airports were within a 20-minute flight distance, the only conceivable solution was to position the warplanes in the air all day to meet the enemy attack. But this solution was not defensible at all.

In 1932, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin delivered a speech in the House of Commons acknowledging this plight, declaring that any attempt to intercept incoming planes would be a waste of valuable time and resources. “People on the street better realize that there is no force on Earth that can protect them from being bombed,” he said. “The bomber always succeeds.”

Preparing for the next battle

Britain’s Air Ministry, which was not so easily defeated, had established the Air Defense Scientific Investigation Committee (CSSAD) in 1934 to consider its options. Born out of despair, this venture also contained an unbridled technological optimism. The industrial revolution had fully matured and brought with it unprecedented new technologies. In the previous decades, electricity, wireless communications, cars and airplanes had been on the rise. Especially the military had its share of scientific and technological developments: There were armored tanks, machine guns and of course bombers.

So the future looked hopeful in terms of what might be possible; This feeling made scientists and technologists consider solutions that seemed excessive. Given the rapid pace of technological progress, it was plausible to assume that the next thing to change the rules in the military field would be one invention away.

A nasty rumor spread that the Nazis had developed a so-called ‘death ray’ that could destroy towns, cities and people; this situation fueled the perception of possibility. In the face of this situation, CSSAD was trying to find out if the Germans were actually capable of developing such a weapon and whether they could make one themselves.

To find the answer, CSSAD appointed Sir Hery Tizard, a renowned Oxford-educated chemist, to head the program and a number of other talented British academics. The researchers’ task was to “assess the extent to which recent developments in scientific and technical know-how could be used to strengthen existing defenses against enemy aircraft”. Moreover; They were also asked to consider the possibility of producing a particle beam or electromagnetic weapon that could fry an enemy pilot in the cockpit, detonate an aircraft’s bombs, or incinerate an aircraft as it flies overhead.

Needless to say, the team hadn’t found anything. That’s why the Air Ministry offered a £1,000 reward to anyone who could make a death ray that could kill a sheep from 100 metres.

No one got the award.

The British then became more serious. In January 1935, H. E. Wimperis, director of the Air Ministry’s Scientific Research division, appointed Robert Watson-Watt to head the Radio Research Station to advise the government on “the feasibility of the unofficially called ‘death ray’ sample plans.”

Watson-Watt commissioned his deputy, Arnold F. Wilkins, to evaluate the feasibility of such a weapon; asked him to calculate how much energy would be required to damage an aircraft or its crew, and find out whether such a beam would have already been produced by an enemy nation.

After considering the laws of physics, Wilkins stated that the concept was theoretically valid, but the power requirements were too high for modern technologies to allow. The team decided that this was truly an idea ahead of its time. That’s why the duo relayed to Tizard and Wimperis on February 4, 1935 that no one could make a death ray.

It’s not such a hopeless problem

Undaunted by their failure to develop such a weapon, the Air Ministry continued to consult Watson-Watt and Wilkins on the imminent bombardment problem. While Wilkins was working on the death ray, he realized that radio detection might not be what he called “so hopeless a problem.” Wilkins had wondered (with some goodwill) whether casting a beam at an object would still produce positive results.

He remembered that post office engineers had reported that airplanes flying around BBC masts were causing interference in radio signals; engineers called it ‘whirring’. Wilkins hypothesized that with the right equipment it would be possible to develop an aircraft detection system by sending a reradiated signal and receiving it from an incoming aircraft. The idea, although not as exciting as the death ray, was a solution to the bombardment problem; but it also raised very promising question marks: The ability to detect incoming aircraft without having to visually see them had the potential to irreversibly change the nature of air warfare.

On February 12, 1935, the team submitted an air defense system proposal to the Air Ministry. Watson-Watt noted: “While it would be impossible to destroy aircraft via radio waves, it should be possible to detect them with radio energy bouncing back from the aircraft’s fuselage.”

Major General Marshal Dowding, unimpressed by the document presented, demanded an introduction. Glad to be compelled to do so, Watson-Watt and Wilkins set up an experiment in the town of Daventry, in the Northamptonshire region, and flew an old RAF bomber back and forth between two BBC radio masts. Stuck into a tiny van with a sidekick, Wilkins stares at a tiny green line that glows and swells on a rough cathode ray tube screen; He was able to track the plane’s position.

The experiment worked; Watson-Watt proclaimed that Britain was “once again an island”.

Best period

They called their invention RDF (Reconnaissance by Radio Detection). The Americans later called it radar (Radio Detection and Rangefinder). The invention forever changed the nature of air warfare and ultimately World War II.

Radar turned out to be a necessary defensive element during the Battle of Britain. In this war, Nazi bombers ruthlessly attacked England in the summer and autumn of 1940. By the end of the failed attacks, Germany had lost 1,184 aircraft to enemy operations; nearly half of its entire fleet. Unable to gain air superiority, Hitler canceled the invasion plans by airborne and turned his eyes to Russia.

In this achievement of the British, the importance of radar cannot be underestimated. If there were no radar, the country would have suffered much more damage. Moreover, all of this happened thanks to a scientific inquiry that did not go as expected.

Author: George Dvorski/Gizmodo. Sources:

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