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Rise of the Ray Gun: Lasers, Death Rays, and Fiction’s Most Famous Weapon

Of all the lasting themes that have remained prevalent in science fiction over the last century, what would the genre have been without ray guns, lasers, and “death rays”?

One might even argue that lasers have been a part of science fiction as we know it today since the very beginning, or close to it, at least. Some argue that the creation of science fiction harkens all the way back to Mary Shelly’s eerie tale of reanimation, Frankenstein, while others claim that better “early” examples of the genre appeared in the writing of American authors like Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote what are among the earliest stories that incorporated space travel and journey to locations like the Moon.

However, if ever there were a “Shakespeare of Science Fiction,” as some have argued, it might have been H.G. Wells, whose contributions to literature included everything from the first non-anthropomorphic aliens (as well as what may be the earliest use of the word “extraterrestrial” in reference to an alien craft), to the “heat rays” wielded by the Martian antagonists in his War of the Worlds. And, with the appearance of these directed-energy weapons in his story, we also have one of the earliest appearances of lasers or “death rays” in science fiction.

It would not be the last, of course. After humanity fumbled their way to triumph over its Martian invaders (with a helping hand from a few friendly terrestrial viruses), later fiction cast these futuristic weapons in the hands of human characters the likes of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and other characters.

Ryan Lambie, writing for Den of Geek, argues that it wasn’t until decades later in the 1950s and 60s that the laser truly claimed its place in science fiction, in part thanks to the real-world development of laser technologies in various industries: 

The production of ray guns of all kinds reached its zenith in the 50s and 60s. Real-world scientific breakthroughs in laser (“light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”) and maser (“microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”) saw numerous kinds of ray-gun appear in the sci-fi movies and shows of these decades, which no doubt fed back into the popularity of the huge armory of toy weapons that appeared around the same time.

The trend continues today, of course, with laser weaponry remaining an indelible part of the fictional Star Wars universe, along with other fantastic interpretations of alternate futuristic realities.

Lasers used for weaponry exist in real life too, but nothing like what we see in science fiction. I recently caught up with Jeff Hecht, author of Lasers, Death Rays, and the Long, Strange Quest for the Ultimate Weapon and a fellow of the Optical Society of America. As Hecht puts it, in the early days finding practical uses for lasers may have been more challenging than actually building the lasers themselves:

“At the very beginning, the running joke was, ‘the laser is a solution in search of a problem.’ They would say that because a lot of the problems the laser was supposed to solve didn’t just go away when you brought in a laser and applied it; you had to do a lot of good engineering to make them work. And we’ve had a lot of good engineering, and certainly for telecommunications, the pairing of the advances in lasers and fiberoptics and the advances in electronics, are behind the whole information technology advance. You can’t have one without the other.”

An example of an operational laser system in use by the U.S. Navy.

Of course, most of the lasers in use today have nothing to do with weaponry, and finding ways to concentrate a beam with strength comparable to what we see in science fiction seems a ways off, too. However, that doesn’t mean that lasers haven’t been useful in terms of making existing weapons more deadly. Hecht says that even in the early years of laser innovation, “what they were looking at was using lasers, at first, just to measure the range to a target–how long does it take to get back and forth–that’s the range of a radar. And then there was a device called a laser target designator, and what that would do is send a series of coded, invisible infrared pulses at a target.”

“If you had an infrared sensor, you’d see this code of reflective pulses coming from something and you could aim a weapon at that ‘something.’ That was how a smart bomb worked.”

So lasers certainly have weapons systems applications, and field tested designs in use by the U.S. Navy, for instance, are capable of disarming drones and other objects at a distance, as was demonstrated in the summer of 2017 with the AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System.

Drone being dispatched using a long distance laser system from aboard a U.S. Navy ship in 2017.

While the capabilities of laser weapons described here may remain limited in the present day, this is not to say that someday more powerful lasers won’t still be developed. However, it is obvious that the current state of the art has not caught up with the imaginations of our science fiction luminaries from over the decades.

In short, lasers continue to play an important role in technological development, as they have since the end of World War II. Their influence and relevance to a variety of industries cannot be denied, and yes, lasers even see some practical use in modern weaponry. But despite these innovations, it remains true that the most powerful lasers are the ones on the printed page; so to reappropriate an old adage for our use here, perhaps the pen truly is mightier than the sword… and the same still goes for the laser.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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