Life and Work of Rolf Wideröe by © Pedro Waloschek,     => Contents

Box 8:  The Mysterious Death Rays

Back in 1935 the use of `death rays' was a suggestion raised in England as a possible defence against the eventuality of German air attacks. These `death rays' were intensely focused electromagnetic waves. Their workings were described in almost the same terms as Dr. Schiebold's later suggestion in Germany. This is recounted by a then member of British intelligence, the physicist R.V.Jones, in his book `Most Secret War' [Jo78]. The British soon rejected this proposal because it was out of the range of the available technology. The SDI projects in the USA are a modern version of these ideas.

Schmellenmeier's contribution in Edgar Swinne's book `Richard Gans' [Sw92], recalls wartime calculations Professor Gans performed for the Rheotron (see Box 9). Gans arrived at the conclusion that if Xrays were very `hard' (about 100 million volts) they would no longer be emitted in all directions (as they would at low voltages), and instead they would be tightly bundled. That was a completely new idea at the time, since installations of such high voltage did not yet exist. However, Gans had also noted that he had forgotten to include the `Compton effect' in the calculation and that the whole procedure was therefore in fact impossible. Despite this, Schmellenmeier indicated in a report justifying the continued building of the Rheotron that, "aeroplane engines could be `pre-ionized' with the bundled, highly penetrating radiation, so that the ignition would fail, the machines could no longer fly and would thus enter into the flak zone".

However, the main reason behind this statement was to continue the Rheotron project in order to save the life of Richard Gans who was of Jewish origin or, as the terminology of the time would have it, a `privileged non-Aryan' _ and Schmellenmeier finally did achieve this.

The fact that betatrons could reach relatively high electron energies and that this could be used to make stronger bundles of X-rays must have given the death-ray advocates renewed hope. And that is how some projects (such as Wideröe's) were financed by the German Aviation Ministry. Others however, such as Gund's and Schmellenmeier's, were financed by the German Research Authority.