Believe the Unbelievable

13 Apr

I just made an item for the One Show about a chap called Harry Grindell Matthews, an inventor from Wales. That alone is quite unusual as Wales is not over-endowed with inventors of any sort. Grindell Matthews came up with all sorts of groovy devices; mobile telephones for pilots, the luminaphone (a crazy light activated instrument), the sky projector (the Bat signal basically) and significantly the DEATH RAY. You have to capitalise DEATH RAY, the law of cheesy, pulp science fiction says so.

The story goes like this. On the 26th May 1924, a bunch of military High Pooh-Bars and Grand Panjandrums came to his lab to see a demonstration of the DEATH RAY. It looked like it was straight out of Flash Gordon (the 1950s black and white series, not the 1980 film). Here is a picture of a model we built for the One Show and below is Grindell Matthews himself with the machine. You couldn’t make this stuff up. The DEATH RAY was used to knock out a petrol motor on the other side of the lab, but the Military bods were not impressed and thought Grindell Matthews was faking it. He refused to move the motor to a different position, claiming he did not have time.That made the Top Brass even more suspicious and they did not follow up on the idea.

To this day we are not 100% sure how or even if the DEATH RAY worked. The patent is a bit vague, but the event got huge press interest. I found myself chatting to the Grindell Matthews world expert, Jonathan Foster. The key question was did Grindell Matthews fake it and could not move the motor because it would have revealed the deception? Or, was it all for real but so delicately set up that moving it would have taken days of fine tuning? The science behind the DEATH RAY, as we understand it, is far fetched but theoretically possible.

So, who do we believe? Was Grindell Matthews above board of faking it? And this raises a more general question, do you trust historical claims when evidence is thin or cynically doubt them? Newton claimed that a falling apple inspired him to work on gravity, but we only have a biography, written after Newton’s death as evidence. Recent biographies of the great man claim it was all a PR stunt and a fabrication? What about the inventor of the cafetiere? On the patent it says Elizabeth Dakin, but history texts say her husband invented it, because he was in the coffee trade and she was just his wife. Time and again you come across re-interpretation of history, based not on evidence but on assumptions. For my money I always try to give the benefit of the doubt to the scientist, unless I can see a real reason to think otherwise.

While we don’t know exactly how Grindell Matthews got his DEATH RAY to work, he said it did and there is no evidence that he faked it, other than media hype. I like the idea that a machine that looks as cool as the DEATH RAY is actually possible. So, I believe him.

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