Harry Grindell Matthews, Madcap Inventor of the Death Ray and the Sky Projector

By Bulent Yusuf on at

Many inventors qualify as dreamers, but precious few captured the popular imagination in the same manner as Harry Grindell Matthews. In the early twentieth century he produced a litany of devices that were the stuff of science fiction and fantasy, chief among them the "Death Ray" and the "Sky Projector". But his reluctance to explain how they worked caused him to frequently butt heads with a sceptical establishment.

Grindell Matthews was born in 1880 in Winterbourne, Gloucestershire. After studying at the Merchant Venturer's School in Bristol, he became an electronic engineer. He served in the South African Constabulary in the Second Boer War, where he was wounded twice, and developed an interest in the possibilities of voice communication by wireless.


1. The Aerophone Device

Upon his return to Britain in 1911, Grindell Matthews claimed to have invented an "Aerophone device", a radiotelephone that could transmit messages between a ground station and an aeroplane from a distance of two miles. His experiments attracted the attention of the government, and on 4 July 1912 he was invited to demonstrate the device to the British Admiralty at Buckingham Palace.

Prior to the demonstration, Grindell Matthews caught four observers dismantling part of the apparatus, taking notes as they went. He promptly flew into a rage, drove the observers away, and cancelled the demonstration. When newspapers got wind of what had happened, a sheepish War Office had to deny any tampering, claiming that the demonstration was a failure.


2. Defence Against Zeppelins

In 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, the British government offered a £25,000 reward for an effective weapon against zeppelins. Grindell Matthews popped up again, this time with a remote-control system that used selenium cells. Another demonstration took place for the benefit of the British Admiralty, at Penn Pond in Richmond Park with a remote-controlled boat, and the demonstration was a success. An eager Admiralty awarded the inventor with £25,000 on the spot, but the invention itself was never used.


3. World's First Talking Picture?

In 1921, Grindell Matthews designed and built a camera that recorded an optical sound track alongside the photographed image. The subject of the "World's First Talking Picture" (as it was dubbed by the attendant publicity) was an interview with intrepid explorer Ernest Shackleton. Whilst the claim to being the first talking picture is disputed -- another contender for that accolade is William K. L. Dickson -- the device itself was a commercial flop, because film producers weren't convinced there was an audience for 'talkies'. By 1924, however, the Warner Bros. film studio retained his services in Hollywood to develop the technique further.


4. The Death Ray

Grindell Matthew's most infamous invention was the "Death Ray" in 1923. It was described as a way to transmit energy without wires, capable of shooting down aeroplanes, stopping ships, and incapacitating infantry from the distance of four miles. In public demonstrations to a select group of journalists, the inventor was able to stop a motorcycle engine from a distance, explode gunpowder, and even execute an unsuspecting mouse. Whilst newspapers ran sensational reports about the invention, the government remained unconvinced. Grindell Matthews refused to elaborate further on how it worked, and so it was rejected.

A furore ensued over the government's refusal to buy into the Death Ray. Debates in Parliament raged about the possibility of such a weapon falling into the hands of a foreign power, and legal efforts were made to prevent Grindell Matthews from taking the Death Ray abroad. In the event, he was able to demonstate it in France and the United States, but they were equally suspicious about the veracity of his claims. The Death Ray never saw widespread production, except perhaps in pulp science fiction and adventure serials.


5. The Sky Projector

In 1930, Grindell Matthews faced bankruptcy after the expensive failure of his "Sky Projector’. This was a device that projected images onto clouds, and was given a public demonstration in Hampstead with the projection of an angel, the message 'Happy Christmas', and a clock face. Having depleted his own funds and those of his investors, Grindell Matthews relocated to South Wales in 1934, where he worked on rocket travel, a submarine detection system, and an "Aerial Torpedo" for defending cities from airborne attacks.

Grindell Matthews died from a heart attack in 1941 at the age of 61. He was the quintessential mad scientist, skirting a fine line between credulity and insanity with each successive invention. With the exception of the talking pictures, we'll never know for sure whether they worked as advertised; his obsessive secrecy and tempestuous relationship with authority put paid to that. But his persistent ingenuity -- and knack for tapping into sensational publicity -- mark him out as a dreamer of the highest order.

Image Credit: The Journal of Defence Science, Volume 2, Page 89 (1997)

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