The man who invented the death ray

Think of it, the classic eccentric inventor, the man who designed and built a death ray and a sky projector for flashing messages onto the clouds - Batman or what? - and he's just moved into a house situated outside your home town.

Troops were sent to guard Harry Grindell Matthews When World War Two began (photo:

That's what happened, not in some Californian hideaway, but on the hills of south Wales between Clydach and Ammanford in the closing years of the 1930s.

Harry Grindell Matthews was born in Gloucestershire on 17 March 1880. After serving with the South African Constabulary during the Boer War (and being twice wounded) he became an electrical engineer at Bexhill.

The humdrum life of an ordinary engineer was not for him, however, and Harry Grindell Matthews soon began to turn his hand to what, in the early 20th century, were known as "inventions".

In 1911 he invented a device to transmit radio telephone messages between the ground and aeroplanes - and this at a time when aircraft had been around for fewer than a dozen years.

On 12 September the noted early pilot CB Hucks, flying at a height of 700 feet, received a message from Matthews on Ely Racecourse in Cardiff, the first time such communication had ever been achieved.

When the government asked for a demonstration of the device, however, Matthews objected to several of their engineers exploring the insides of his machine. He promptly packed up all the equipment and stormed off.

Newspapers of the time were all behind the new inventor but the War Office, desperate not to lose face, promptly announced that the tests had been a failure.

Undaunted, Matthews continued to work. In 1914, with war declared against Germany, the government offered a grant of £25,000 to anyone who could come up with a way of defending the country against zeppelins or other remote controlled weapons of war.

Harry Grindell Matthews created a system using selenium cells and this time demonstrated his invention to the Admiralty. He got his £25,000 but, strangely, his device was never used.

The list of Matthews' inventions is long and varied - an early version of the mobile phone, a system for making talking pictures (long before The Jazz Singer) and, above all, a death ray that would stop the engines of cars and motorbikes, even planes, from a great distance away.

In 1924 the government asked for a demonstration of this death ray but, always prickly where authority was concerned, Harry Grindell Matthews refused. Instead he showed how it worked to journalists, igniting a charge of gunpowder from many feet away. Once again the British press took him to their heart.

Matthews refused to say how his death ray worked, simply stating that the device sent out a beam or ray that stopped the magneto in any car or motorbike engine. Clearly there was some substance to his invention, with several of his assistants having been knocked out when passing too close to the beam and Matthews himself claiming to have lost the use of an eye during one experiment.

For a brief while Harry and his death ray were headline news in all the papers, particularly when the government - mindful, perhaps, of his petulance some years before - refused to buy it. Matthews declared that it was his invention and he would sell it to a foreign government if necessary. There was even a High Court injunction to stop this happening but when he did finally demonstrate the death ray to the Air Ministry in April 1924 officials were unimpressed and strongly suspected a confidence trick.

Harry Grindell Matthews next spent some time in America, working for a time for Warner Brothers, before returning to the UK with his next invention, a sky projector. In December 1930 he threw up the image of an angel and the message "Happy Christmas" onto the clouds outside London.

Despite this the sky projector was not a commercial success, and by 1931 Matthews was close to bankruptcy. Part of the trouble was that he enjoyed the high life, dining in fancy restaurants and staying in the best hotels, and that was where most of his sponsors money actually went.

Somehow Harry Grindell Matthews managed to survive - his relationship and later marriage to Ganna Walska, an American opera singer may have helped - and in 1938 he moved to a house he had built for himself, Tor Clawdd on the hills above Clydach in south Wales.

It was not just a house, he also created a laboratory and carved out an airstrip for himself on a shelf of land at the back of the building.

Matthews continued to invent, creating, amongst other things, a machine that was able to detect submarines. The locals around Ammanford and Clydach did not quite know what to make of the man. They listened to the strange noises from his workshops, noted the powerful lights at night. Some even told stories about how their motorbike engines would suddenly cut out when they were riding on the mountain road - "Mr Matthews and his machine again," they would say.

Although the British government remained wary of his ideas they were sufficiently concerned about the safety of this wayward inventor that when war came in 1939 they were happy to provide electric fences and, for a while, troops to guard his property.

Harry Grindell Matthews died suddenly, from a heart attack, on 11 September 1941. His funeral was a low-key affair. Virtually nobody came and with the war raging against Germany people had other things on their minds.

A sad end to a man of undoubted genius? To a man who hoodwinked the nation's press? To a confidence trickster of the highest order? You pays your money and you takes your guess!


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