When Alfred Loomis Created the Death Ray

Illustration for article titled When Alfred Loomis Created the Death Ray

Imagine Lex Luthor as a really nice guy and you'll be pretty close to understanding Alfred Loomis. He was a scientist and inventor, a businessman and investor, a wealthy and prominent man. And he also invented the "Death Ray."


The Business World

Alfred Loomis was a millionaire, a philanthropist, and a guy you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. It's not that he was a bad person, it's just that if you were going to meet the inventor of the Death Ray, you would want to be someplace well-lit so you could see what he was pointing at you. Loomis was born relatively wealthy, and multiplied that wealth throughout his life. He started slow, quitting a law firm to join the army in World War I, and working his way into a weapons engineering unit. There, he perfected and patented a couple of weapons testing devices.

After the war, Loomis headed to the business world. He and his brother-in-law, Landon Thorne, acquired an ailing investment house and nursed it back to health. Loomis' science training came in handy. Thorne and Loomes were looking to finance public utilities at a time when electricity was spreading across the country. Having someone who could understand the technical details was the key to knowing which nuts to pick. And speaking of nuts to pick, Loomis spent the latter years of his business career collecting and funding promising scientists. At the time, there wasn't much public funding available for the sciences, so Loomis knew he'd have to work to support the people who were trying to engineer new technology.

The Death Ray

In 1924, he got together with Robert Wood, a professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University, and started the real mad science. The two of them researched high-frequency sound waves, and their effects on matter. They found that, with enough intensity, these sound waves disrupted the tissue in blood vessels. Exposure to the waves killed small animals and frog eggs, as well as a few plants. The two published an article titled, "The Physical and Biological Effects of High-Frequency Sound-Waves of Great Intensity," and the news of the "Death Ray" was out. Loomis' background in weapons research informed the work on the weapon, and for the next decade popular science publications predicted a death ray that burst the insides of cells. Its possibilities made headlines again and again. At first, people thought it might be used to simply zap enemy troops. Later, when it was found that these waves worked best through liquid and solid, people thought the ray might be a way to kill submarine crews.

Eventually, they found that sound waves were not useful in terms of murdering anything more than frog eggs and the hopes of a million megalomaniacs died. However, science and weapons research found champions outside the private sphere. And after World War II, most governments got more interested in the applied sciences. Loomis' laboratories had competition for the best scientists, and Loomis himself wanted to take it a bit easy after his years as a lawyer, soldier, investor, engineer, and mad scientist. Still, those must have been heady times. Loomis remains a famous patron of the sciences. He died in 1975, respected by scientists, loved by his family . . . and feared by anyone with any sense.

Via SIAM, NCBI,NCBI, The Amazing Weapons That Never Were.