Saturday, February 5, 2011

Humanity's Endless Quest to Invent a Death Ray: A History

Following up on the Roman prosperity post below we have The Awl:

What if I said the Death Star’s most deadly feature—yes, the one that rebel leader Admiral Ackbar said was "not yet operational"—was first envisioned by our planet’s very own scientist and inventor Archimedes over 2,200 years ago? You’d probably be all, “it’s a trap!"

Don’t worry, it’s not a trap, and your cruisers can definitely repel firepower of that magnitude. In fact, if you’re a fan of "Mythbusters" and/or President Obama, you may already have seen an episode, aired last December 8th, 2010, in which Obama very professorially challenges hosts Jamie and Adam to determine whether Archimedes’ death ray could have actually functioned. Obama refers to the weapon as a “solar ray” throughout, because he is adorably moderate even when it comes to fictional superweapons.
So, you may be asking, how did this ancient death ray work, how many Romans were fried by it and can I fry Romans with it too?

If you've read up on your death ray history, you may already know that, quite unfortunately, the Roman Empire has since fallen—very quietly, with much grace and with absolutely no impact on the world—so you can’t really attack Roman imperialists anymore. But!

If you lived in the time of Archimedes, you might want to look around for the device depicted here, before you force Socrates into a telephone booth to help you and your BFF with your history report.
The central conceit was that a concave series of mirrors could refract sunrays into one central blast of solar energy. If that blast was focused enough, it could burn holes in the vulnerable wooden hulls of enemy ships and sink them from a distance. It would be more or less the same principles of burning an ant with a magnifying glass, only not so much an early symptom of sociopathy.

So what was the verdict on whether this innovative sun-laser could have existed? The Mythbusters guys assembled hundreds of students, instructing them to aim mirrors at a target on a mock trireme. Alas, they were unable to raise the focal point to 410 degrees Fahrenheit, the necessary temperature for the sails to burst into flame. It was the third time Jamie and Adam busted the myth of Archimedes’ death ray, and the first time President Obama had a full-on public temper tantrum. He almost killed Jamie with a scythe! (A lie.)

Most historians are on Jamie and Adam’s side, claiming the death ray’s existence must always have been theoretical because Archimedes’ contemporaries never wrote, “Oh my gods, STOP THE SCROLLS! A death ray forged from Apollo’s fiery brilliance has been hewn!” Also, if the death ray had been put into use and had been effective, the Romans would’ve wanted to use it against the Greeks, who’d want to use it against the Spartans, who’d want to use it against the Thracians and so on throughout the seriously petty Ancient World. Everyone would want big ol' death rays in their backyards and the whole history of warfare would have been totally different… if we had even survived long enough to create that history.

But the fact that its conception never led to its creation 2,200 years ago does not diminish what Archimedes had unleashed on the world. The death ray went on to capture the imaginations of engineers, scientists and inventors for millennia and many geniuses have struggled to bring it into reality....MORE