Posts Tagged ‘Photo Electric Cell’

1931 – Willie Vocalite – Joseph M. Barnett (American)

Westinghouse's first robot was "Herbert Televox" built by Roy Wensley out at their East Pittsburgh, Pensilvania plant. Wensley left Westinghouse, but another man of metal was born.  Referred to as the son of "Herbert Televox", "Mr. Vocalite", later called "Willie Vocalite" was conceived and designed by Joseph (Barney) M. Barnett, member of the Westinghouse Engineering Department at their plant in Mansfield, Ohio. Barnett became interested in Robots while working in the East Pittsburgh works of the company where he met Wensley, and after being transferred to Mansfield, developed a few of his own ideas in Mr. Vocalite. The robot's name "Vocalite" gives some clues to his improvements, namely now responding to vocal signals, not whistle signals, and light control through the use of photo-electric cells.  Let's not forget Rastus and Telelux, constructed by Thomas and Kintner, that also responded to light control, and were fixed to a base, but were not men of metal, but men of rubber, at least externally.

What can Willie do?

In himself, he can rise from a seated position, move either arm independently by rotation at the shoulder, he can be seated again, wink his eyes, and he can smoke cigarettes continuously. Having a "televox' supervisory control unit, he can turn on and off any electrical appliance connected to him. Typically he shows domestic appliances being turned on and off, from vacuum cleaners, electric lights, fans, radios, washing machines, heaters, mix masters, and the like. His eyes are said to glow scarlett in colour.

Other claims are that he can salute, indicating an elbow action, and fire a gun, indicating a finger action. Other than a claim for a 'me too' status, I can see no evidence that Willie fired a gun. Maybe an attachment to the hand was made, or the gun was fired remotely as per the other devices. Certainly the fingers are rigid in all the versions.  One image has Willie holding a recipe book, indicating that his wrists could rotate, but most likely not powered. 

There are at least two versions of Willie Vocalite, mainly indicated by the number of "buttons" on the front of his suit. The four button suit Willie appears around 1937 when he took an ocean voyage to Hawaii. This version also allows his head to turn for the first time.  The third version, now called Willie Westinghouse, has a modern three-button suit! He also has a neck allowing an up and down movement, as well as the sideways movement. His elbows now bend. His fingers are rigid, but there is evidence they were not necessarily rigidly fixed to the palm of the hand.

If adapted with a taste sensor (referred to as "electronyx" in one of the press articles, which is actually a highly sensitive ampere device testing acidity), Willie was also said the be capable of 'tasting' food.  

How does Willie  work?

As mentioned in his opening premier article above, Willie responds to syllables spoken into a telephone handset. Each syllable momentarily flashes a light source. The light shines on a photo-electric cell, which triggers the grid-glow tube, starting electrical current in his "nerve centre". The current operating relays that perform a particular function. Three syllables starts the robot, four stops him. Each command has to complete before Willie is ready for the next one.

Grid glow tubes also known gas-filled triodes or thyratrons. The tubes are comparable in application to lock-in relays, wherein a small amount of power is used to turn on comparatively large currents from a local source. I will write about these in a separate post.

Most images of Willie Vocalite and Willie Westinghouse show an electronic apparatus next to him. This is essentially the "televox" unit.


 The single tube unit [detailed below] is the grid-glow tube.  The rack at the right hand side of the photo is the relay rack. It is basically the same unit out of the portable "Televox" unit, marked in red in the image below.


The portable "Televox" unit as used in "Herbert Televox".


 [Note: you can see the single grid-glow tube next to Willie's left arm.]




 Willie at the Ford trimotor National Air Transport opening ceremony, Newark Airport, 1931.

    Willie Westinghouse – 3 button suit, articulated elbow, up and down and sideways movement of head because of neck.




A glimpse into the future will be presented when "Willie" Vocalite, Westinghouse mechanical man, makes his first appearance in this city. Willie Vocalite has been, called the "scientific marvel" by electrical engineers and scientists all over the United States.
This famous mechanical man will come to this city as the guest of the Food, Home and Flower Show at the Avalon ballroom March 12-14.
As the appearance of this scientific marvel never fails to attract capacity crowds, the management is making every effort to see that every person in this territory who wishes to see the exhibition will get the opportunity.
Willie Vocalite is the latest addition to the already famous family of Westinghouse mechanical men. He is now on tour through the country, displaying his talents to hundreds of thousands of persons who are interested in seeing what steps science is taking to advance the wants of man.
Makes Life Easier
"Willie" is an exemplification of what scientists are accomplishing to make life easier for man. By personifying him through the addition of a body, this mechanical man been made into a figure of popular appeal. When his operator, E. A. King gives "Willie" a command, the huge mechanical man responds immediately.
He sits down, stands up, fires a pistol, raises a flag, talks, smokes, runs a vacuum sweeper, and performs many other interesting tricks. King simply issues the command into a telephone and it is instantly obeyed.
The same system of control that makes "Willie" perform has already been used to turn electric signs on and off by the approach of daylight or nightfall, start and stop motors at predetermined times, control traffic signals, and count various colored moving objects. In addition to the presentation of this scientific achievement, a group of high voltage tricks will be given by Vocalite's operator. A three-inch electric spark will travel along ten feet of wire, eight-inch sparks will be sent from a brass ball and light a Neon tube, and a cotton wick will be lighted simply by the touch of the operator's foot.
Two Years to Develop
Westinghouse engineers say that it took approximately two years to develop Willie Vocalite. The system of photo-electric cells and relays has been made in this figure to give a concrete example of the application of this kind of electric equipment. In appearance "Willie" stands over six feet in height, and weighs approximately 350 pounds. His body is made from pressed steel, which is formed into a girue closely resembling that of Ihe human body. He is mounted on a pedestal, and from that position, does his tricks. A special truck has been made to take this mechanical marvel around the country. Shortly before the first exhibition in this city, the truck will parade through the streets to give the citizens some idea of what they will see when they attend one of the performances.


Albuquerque Journal 25 Dec 1938 p22

The imagination of both children and grown-ups is inhabited by many strange creatures. One of the strangest monsters ever described by the pen, the "Golem" of ancient Hebrew transcript, is reproduced by science in the shape of Willie Vocalite, a mechanical robot for the performance of tedious or difficult jobs. Willie talks and acts by means of photo-electric tubes and he tastes foods with an "electrynx" so sensitive that it will record the acidity of fruits to one millionth of an ampere.

 Scott Schaut's excellent book on Westinghouse robots ("Robots of Westinghouse – 1924 – today", 2006)  gives a lot of detail and more pics which I wont include in this post. 

1930 – Rastus Robot & Willie Jr. – Thomas / Kintner (Westinghouse) (American)

Above: Mr. 'Rastus Robot, the most lifelike of mechanical men, conducting a conversation with S. M. Kintner, assistant vice-president of the Westinghouse Co., Mr. Robot needs some prompting, it is true; that is given by the flashlight in his interlocutor's right hand, which controls the "sound-on-film" conversation previously rehearsed.

Here we have 'Rastus playing the role of the junior Wilhelm Tell. He has a rather strained air; and the shot will bring him to his feet with an exclamation of dismay. However, the shot will be made, not with the arrow itself, but with a beam of light. (Photos Westinghouse Electric & Mfg. Co.)

The above two images and the Radio-Craft article courtesy of Linda Paulsen, Thomas Mittelstaedt , and Mark Durenberger from the Pavek Broadcast Museum

Radio-Craft February 1931 (p469,509)

Mr. 'Rastus Robot
During the electrical and radio exhibitions of the past season, the increasing perfection of those mechanical servants, now popularly called "robots," has been the most spectacular feature. One of the finest yet produced, for human appearance and versatility, is "'Rastus," who is illustrated on the opposite page. He has the powers of speech, of using his hands, of rising and sitting—although, to date, the complicated maneuvers of walking seem to have been a little too much for biped automatons.
(Continued on page 509)
The signals, from which the talented gentleman from East Pittsburgh takes his cues, are given by means of light. The operator who directs his motions is armed with a control tube containing a neon lamp, which is modulated at audio frequency. Throwing the light from this on the proper photo-cell operates the desired relay in the robot. Within its figure is a miniature talking-movie equipment; that is to say, a 16-mm. projector, containing film with appropriate speeches in sequence on the sound track. This is operated at the proper time, and gives 'Rastus a very copious vocabulary- in a rich, baritone voice. A green light operates this sound apparatus, and a red light the motor equipment. This talented performer made his debut before the A.I.E.E, under the chaperonage of L. W. Chubb, research director of the Westinghouse laboratories.

Built by Dr. Phillips Thomas and S. M. Kintner in 1930.  He moves (stands up or sits down, bows), talks (6 word vocabulary or sequences), and a photo-electric cell in his head , when activated by a light, in this case a beam from the arrow, is triggered, a gunpowder charge blows the apple off his head.  His skin was made from rubber.

The picture above is one one the sharpest I've seen of Rastus. Quite a bit of detail can be gleaned from this. The photo was found on Jim Linderman's web page. The apparatus behind him is the "electric-eye" fire extinguisher.



[Note: The above article spells Kintner's name incorrectly as Kitner .] 

 from San Antonio Light 06 Sep 1931


The cells can be usedf to start, stop or blow up anything at any distance to which a beam of light or shadow can be thrown, Mr. Kintner performed a modernized version of William Tell and the famous shooting of the apple from the boy's head. In this case the boy was the dummy of a negro; and instead of shooting the arrow, he merely had to point it at the dummy's head. There was a lamp on the arrow which directed a beam in the direction it was aimed. As soon as that light fell on the eyes of the "boy," in whose hollow skull were photo-electric cells, the apple blew off his head by an explosion of gunpowder. The point of the William Tell story was the danger of missing the apple and killing the boy, but with Mr. Kintner's contraption there would have been nothing to it, he could not have missed.


Syracuse Herald 06 May 1935 p3

……………….Rastus Robot, the mechanical man, is the star performer of a demonstration and lecture in charge of Dr. ? Maxwell, of the Electrical Circus. This circus, which amazed throngs for two seasons of the World's Fair, opens with the manufacture of 250,000 volts of artificial lightning, zigzaging from a generator across insulators on a dwarf power transformer tower. The flash has a duration of five-millionths of a second. In a modern version of the William Tell legend, a beam of light shoots an apple off Willie. Jr.'s head—Willie. Jr. being a mechanical boy similar in his mysterious workings to Rastus Robot.

[Note: another occurance of Willie Jr and Rastus from 1935. It's one of two articles I've seen that ever mentions Willie Jr, the boy similar to Rastus. So Willie Jr is another Westinghouse robot only just discovered!  There is a possibility that Telelux was eventually called Willie Jr.]

Another article (1930) refers to Rastus Robot as Doctor Thomas' "mechanical slave".  Maybe by 1935 Rastus Robot, the negro mechanical slave is becoming politically incorrect already.

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1957 – Machina Versatilis – Ivan Sutherland (American)

Ivan Sutherland with M. Versatilis.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University Archives

Machina Versatilis , pictured above and below, was so named due to the versatile modular plug-in boards. M. Versatilis was the final of three models built, and at least two of this model were supposedly built. The first version, see blog post here, was originally built in Spring 1956 by Ivan Sutherland's older brother Bert (William Robert Sutherland) and his then class room-mate Malcolm "Mac" G. Mugglin.

That model had shortcomings and was abandond. Later that year, Ivan took charge of the project and produced a second model. This model used a cast aluminium plate, easily removeable wet battery, and plastic bumpers. It still utilised vacuum tubes [valves] at this time. The third and final model was primarily built by Ivan in September 1957,  was fully transistorised and used only dry-cell batteries. 

To my knowledge, although Grey Walter had said he had built a transistorised tortoise in a letter dated Jan 1957, this is the first cybernetic animal to utilise transistors that we have proof of.

Another first was that a second M. Versatilis was built along with a light mounted on a rolling platform to be pushed around as a toy. Ivan later describes his idea on improving M. Versatilis even further with a direction-guiding gyroscope to enable a game of soccer to be played.  This effectively is the first ever mention of the concept now known as robo-soccer.

The pdf below, along with the letters published here give a good all round description of M. Versatilis.

There is a video clip featuring the Sutherland brothers giving a talk on their lives. There's a brief mention of the robots about 19 minutes into the clip titled "mom loved him best" .

Electro-Mechanical-Animal Sutherland-  a pdf of the below article

Although thought to have been #6, the stamping clearly shows a '5', contradicting WGW's and Sutherland's correspondence.





Documents showing schematics of plug-in modules.

There are not many references to Machina Versatilis. Unfortunately one of the more recent tomes on the history of A.I. (Boden: Mind as Machine) incorrectly credits the Sutherlands' as the builders of Edmund C. Berkeley's "Squee" of 1951, rather than M. Versatilis.

See other Cybernetic Creatures here.

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1955 – Snail – Cross – (American)

Snail Robot by Versal Cross 

High-School Robots Learn the “Three Rs”

By Jim Collison – Popular Mechanics  July 1955

There is also a little robot. Versal Cross, 17, the senior student who built it calls it a Doodlebug or Snail. The Snail follows a beam of light and, having lost it, searches until it finds the light again. It is not controlled by radio or by other remote controls. Assembled, it looks like a giant bug with feelers guiding it as it searches for the beam of light.

Foley [Minn.] science instructor Alfred A. Lease says this of his students [high-school juniors]: “Their accomplishments would make some college graduates look on with envy.”

In every corner of this Foley classroom are student-built machines that perform a variety of tasks. Each student must work on one project a year.

"The Snail, a mobile wire-caged machine, follows a light beam. Inventor Versal Cross holds flashlight."

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1920 – “The Kaiser” Mechanical Man – Capt. Alban J. Roberts (New Zealand/Australia/U.K.)

The name "Kaiser" comes from the title of a video clip found at British Pathe here. Its actual name is not known at this time.


Captain Alban J. Roberts – mobile, light-operated automaton 1920's (responsible for robots attributed to Jasper Maskelyne (music halls) and occasionally incorrectly attributed to Capt W. H. Richards (Eric the Robot) in error due to similar names. Errantly, we also see the name Alan Roberts pop up as well.

I'm going to make a few claims about  Capt. Alban J. Roberts and his automatons.

From my research, "Kaiser" is the first:

  • electrically powered automaton suited in sheet metal ie a tin man.
  • electrically powered automaton to offer a walking / skating action without the need for an external prop ie a cart.
  • electrically powered automaton (in human form) to be remote controlled, in this case by light.
  • electrically powered automaton (in human form) to be semi-autonomous ie self-contained (no external power or control wires), but not self-controlled.

By these claims, Robert's "Kaiser" pre-dates the previous holder of some of these "firsts" – namely Capt. Richards' "Eric" of  1928, which appeared around the same time as the humaniform of Wensley's "Televox". I'll go a step further and even suggest that "Kaiser" may have even influenced Fritz Lang's visualisation of "Futura" in his production of  "Metropolis" which commenced in 1925.

Although born in New Zealand, the technology behind Roberts' automatons was evolving and being used by him in New Zealand, Australia, even USA and India. However, the first occurrance I can find of the existence of his automatons is in London, U.K.

Biography of Alban J. Roberts:

1880 – Alban Joseph Roberts -Born in Wellington, New Zealand 28/8/1880
Registration Number 1880/12836
Family Name Roberts
Given Name(s) Alban Joseph
Mother's Given Name(s) Kate Clara
Father's Given Name(s) William Henry

1904 – Running Municipal Electric Lighting Works – Patea, N.Z. Resigned June 1904.

1905 – Christchurch – Patented Meat marker.Instructor in Electricity at Kaiapoi Technical Classes.

1908 – Early experiments in wireless in 1908 in Sydney, Australia.

1909 – registered new member for Aero Club of the UK ("Flight" magazine)

1910 – Wireless motor-launch at Dagenham Lake, Essex, England with F. Heeley
 Hippodrome demonstration with wireless dirigible [same year as Raymond Phillips]. Torpedo demonstration.

1913 – Demonstration of Wireless Dirigible back in New Zealand.

1914 – AJR on his way to London via Australia – Demonstrates Wireless dirigible. Stays due to war outbreak.

1914 – 1918 – World War I

1915 – Flight Apr 16, 1915 mentions "wireless Dirigible" at the Hippodrome, London. operator is Mr Raymond Phillips, not Roberts. [see earlier date of 1910 for Phillips].

1916 – "Flight"  Sept 21 1916 – "distant control of aircraft by whistling" -reprinted in (Scientific American Supplement, No. 2155, April 21, 1917, p. 245.)
Mentions  he experimented in Australia, India, America, and the UK.

1918 WWI – Alban Joseph Roberts. RNAS Officers Service (Royal Naval Air Service)

1920 – Automaton walks by sound control – reported in London "Era" and Australian "Argus" . Newsreel also reports 12 Feb 1920 as the date for "Kaiser" the robot.

1921 – (1 August to 13 September) – St George's Hall appearance.

1921 – Capt Alban J. Roberts performed for Maskelyne at St George's Hall. Mentions "Life-Size Automaton Controlled by Light Vibration."

1923 – (2nd to 14th July) Capt Alban J. Roberts performed at St George's Hall for Maskelyne (according to "The Times" advertisements). 

1924 – Dutch / German Circus poster (Circus Busch) showing female automaton on skates.

1925 – "Argus" Newspaper – Aerial Torpedo  12 Aug 1925

1928 – (10 September) Roberts returns to St George's Hall for a five week engagement with "The Robot". Most published press available is of this event. Robot looks like a sheik – maybe "Lawrence of Arabia". Probably booked by Noel Maskelyne.

1930 – Roberts patents advertising device – UK 1,769,311

1938 – Director of Visular Directions Ltd, a new company in London (Flight Mag)

1950 – Died in England, U.K. aged 70.

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. , Australia Saturday 22 May 1920 Page10 

"No more amazing turn has been seen even at the Coliseum than that labelled "Vibrations Harnessed" (writes the London "Era"). Captain Alban J. Roberts, a New Zealand inventor, has apparently learned how to subdue light and found to his will, by a brilliant ray of light he causes balloons to explode and bells to ring, and by sound he makes an automaton walk and a miniature motor-car move at his direction. The scientists may be able to understand this harnessing of light and sound, but we frankly admit that to us it partook of the miraculous."

The Technology Behind Alban J. Roberts' Automatons.

Although I have another post describing the underlying technologies behind early automatons and robots (see here), I will highlight those deployed and even invented by Roberts.

The automaton is not mentioned in the below article from Popular Science, April 1929. Examples of light control and sound control are shown. notice also the mis-spelling of "Alban". 

from Flight Magazine
Flight  Sept 21 1916

"Distant control of aircraft by whistling"
reprinted in Aircraft.—Distant control of aircraft by whistling. Diagram of device. (Scientific American Supplement, No. 2155, April 21, 1917, p. 245.)

Some posters from a Dutch site on early European Circus (see here)

Alban J. Roberts – "Kaiser" photo gallery – (stills from video clip)


 See Robert's later Mechanical Man here.


Death Rays

A.J. Roberts involved with Motorcycle 'death ray' experiment.

The Harry Grindell Matthews story is quite amazing. see here Grindell 'Death Ray' Matthews .  It appears Matthews 'stole' Robert's ideas and tried to make money from them himself.  The "Death Ray" was most likely a focused light then when being shone onto a selenium cell, triggered some function, such as turning the power off or operating a relay to break a circuit. It was a trick.  

Interesting also that Matthews probably stole Roberts idea re aerial advertising. Roberts was to patent an advertising device in 1930.

Key points of the Matthews story:

Now, in 1914 and faced with the prospect of a lengthy conflict, the British government was desperate for innovations which would help them wage war against Germany. Two inventions interested them greatly. The first was a ray which would disable the Zeppelins, and the second was a ray which could control unmanned craft. A reward of £25,000 was offered to the person who came up with either. Matthews was convinced he could provide the latter and claimed he had developed a remote control system using cells containing selenium. After testing his invention on Edgbaston Reservoir, he demonstrated it to Admiralty officials at Richmond Park’s Penn Pond. They were so impressed that Matthews received his cheque for £25,000 the following morning, a not inconsiderable sum of money in 1915.

Yet there was something not quite right about this event. Although the remote control boat had been proven to the Admiralty officials and a vast sum of money paid, the idea never manifested as workable in practice. The Admiralty, for whatever reason, chose not to pursue Matthews’ selenium control system which, besides operating boats remotely, was claimed to detonate explosives at a distance. Was this ignorance and jealousy on behalf of the War Office or the first hints that Matthews wasn’t quite as genuine as he appeared? Again Matthews lapsed into obscurity. He re-appeared briefly, yet significantly, in 1921, breaking new ground by producing the world’s first talking picture. This was a short interview with the explorer Ernest Shackleton prior to his fatal attempt at circumnavigating the Antarctic. This film is important because it proves Matthews, despite the hype and ambiguity which often attended his inventions, was not a charlatan, and was in many ways years ahead of his time.

Matthews turned his mind to the idea of a possible death ray in the autumn of 1923. After reading news reports of French airplanes dropping out of the sky over Germany, he said: “I realized that the Germans had found an invisible ray that put the magnetos of the aircraft out of action. I concentrated on efforts to discover what it was, and with the electric ray now at my command I think I have succeeded.” Select journalists were given a demonstration of Matthews’ ‘ray’ stopping a motor cycle engine at a distance of 50 ft (15m). “I am confident,” Matthews announced, “that if I have facilities for developing it I can stop aeroplanes in flight –- indeed I believe the ray is sufficiently powerful to destroy the air, to explode powder magazines, and destroy anything on which it rests.”

Thus the death ray was born in the mind of the popular press. Matthews capitalised on his new-found fame, being well aware that his stock was not particularly high with the British government. So, rather than approach them directly, he went to his old friends the press. They were only too happy to help, and fanciful accounts of the death ray and what it could do began to appear by late 1923. Bemused by Matthew’s sudden re-appearance but fearful that the publicity he was enjoying would lead to another nation bidding for the death ray, the War Office was forced to act. Swallowing their pride and suspending their disbelief, in February 1924 the Air Ministry offered Matthews the opportunity to demonstrate his death ray to them. Matthews at first ignored their advances, perhaps hoping the government would simply accept his assertion that the ray did as he said.

When no such offer was forthcoming, Matthews contacted the press with further dramatic claims and by April 1924 the death ray – or more properly the idea of the death ray – was world news. The London Star announced the invention as a “wonderful invisible ray which has turned into fact the dreams of Wells’ fiction.” And they hadn't even seen it yet! A wide-eyed Star reporter was ushered into Matthews’ London laboratory and shown a bowl of gunpowder being ignited by the ray. Matthews was at pains to explain this was only the beginning, a small scale demonstration of what could easily be the destruction of ammunition dumps at huge distances or the destruction of aeroplane engines in flight.

The scientific principles on which the ‘ray’ worked were glossed over by all concerned. Ionized air carrying an electrical current was mentioned by some commentators, others talked of exceptionally short radio waves. Matthews wasn’t saying and no-one appeared to be asking the right questions, certainly not the press. To them the idea of a death ray was enough.

Furthermore, Appleton claimed Matthews was “working the press, but had now lost control of it.” The explicit conclusion of this meeting was that the government did not trust Matthews. Yet they were loathe to dismiss him completely as long as even a small chance remained that he could be onto something. No government wanted to turn down the death ray only for it to turn up later in the arsenal of an enemy. Air Vice Marshal Salmond wrote immediately to Matthews suggesting further, more detailed demonstrations. Matthews replied that he could not understand why the government would not accept the evidence he had presented to them.

He had now lost patience with England and was offering the ‘ray’ to the French. Following this breakdown of communications, events took a turn that was both dramatic and ludicrous. Tuesday 27 May 1924 saw scenes which could have come straight from an Ealing Comedy. The Daily Express summed up the farce perfectly a day later with its front page headline “Melodramatic Death Ray Episodes”. Their lead article opined: “Melodrama has seldom surpassed the heights which were reached in yesterday’s ‘Death Ray’ episodes. Hurried legal action in the High Court was followed by an unsuccessful motor-car chase, an air journey by Mr. Grindell Matthews to Paris, a belated renewal of conversations on this side of the channel, a reopening of negotiations in France and a deluge of claims by rival inventors. Beneath all was the undertone of tragedy suggested by the terrible powers which are attributed to the ray.”

Once again, the government was forced by popular opinion to make official statements and on 28 May questions were asked in the House of Commons. Mr Leach, Under Secretary for Air, was questioned by Commander Kenworthy, who demanded to know what steps were being taken to prevent an invention of the death ray’s magnitude from leaving the country. Leach re-iterated the government's position, “We are not in a position to pass judgment on the value of this ray, because we have not been allowed to make proper tests. Therefore whether there is anything in it or not still remains unexplored. The Departments have been placed in a difficult position in dealing with the matter partly because of the vigorous Press campaign conducted on behalf of this gentleman, and partly because this is not the first occasion on which the inventor has put forward a scheme for which extravagant claims have been made. The result is the Departments are not able to accept Mr Grindell Matthews’ statement about this invention without a scrutiny which he is not prepared to face.”

Furthermore, His Majesty’s Government believed that “the conditions under which the demonstrations were made by Mr Matthews were such that it was not possible to form any opinion as to the value of the device.” Carefully worded or not, the implication seemed to be that Grindell Matthews at best may have not demonstrated his invention under correct laboratory conditions, and at worst had brazenly attempted to defraud the British Government. The statement went on to stress that the government had been at pains to be scrupulously fair with Matthews, offering him the chance to repeat the demonstration. All they required to be convinced was that he use his ray to stop the engine of a petrol driven motorcycle engine provided by them. On successful completion of this test, Matthews would then be given £1,000 as a retainer for 14 days whilst the government considered “the basis of further financial negotiations for the purchase or development of his invention.” As yet, the government didn’t even want to know how the ray worked, just for it to be demonstrated to their satisfaction using their own laboratory conditions. Not an unreasonable request.

The 1st of June 1924 saw Matthews returning to London, and he was angry. In an interview with the Sunday Express he defended his life’s work even to the point of raging at those who referred to his notorious invention as a ‘ray’. It was, he claimed, a ‘beam’, not a ray, although quite what the difference was he failed to say. Matthews still believed he had a deal with Royer and was insistent his death ray was all packed and ready to be shipped to France for further development.

From an entertainment perspective the film made great viewing, coming as it did in the wake of the massive publicity given the death ray furor. Yet there was no evidence that the subject matter of the film had any basis in reality. Stills show fantastic apparatus, claimed to be the death ray, but which bear no relation to the small Heath Robinson-like machine demonstrated to the government weeks earlier. Poetic license was clearly at work and S R Littlewood, in The Sphere, made some perceptive observations relevant to the whole affair: “…The Death Ray in which Mr Grindell Matthews is shown pulling levers of his machine and a rat is shown falling dead in its cage, a bicycle stopping and aeroplanes galore falling down in flames from the sky. From the scientific point of view – that is to say as a proof that it was the ray that killed the rat – I do not suppose that The Death Ray is intended to be regarded as of any value at all. One does not for a moment disbelieve Mr Grindell Matthews. At the same time a film which could have been so obviously ‘faked’ leaves one simply with the same amount of information as one had before save, perhaps, as to the shape of the machine, which is a sort of searchlight with three megaphone-like ears attached to it.

There the saga of the death ray ends. Matthews never managed to successfully demonstrate his invention to anyone's satisfaction. Whether this was because it was a complex money-making scam or whether the world’s governments were incapable of grasping the enormity of his ideas is unclear. We do know however that no-one ever developed a death ray, nor did Matthews pursue the invention further. Instead he went back to America where he worked as a consultant for Warner Brothers, putting his genuine skills in sound and vision technology to good use.

By the late 1920s, Matthews was back in Britain with a series of new, bold inventions which actually worked. His piece de resistance was a device to project advertisements on clouds.

On Christmas Eve 1930 he stunned London by projecting the image of an angel onto clouds above Hampstead Heath. The apparition was so realistic that people miles away apparently fell to their knees in worship, believing the Second Coming was at hand! He followed this with demonstrations in New York, where he projected the Stars and Stripes 10,000ft (3,000m) above the city (see below).

This invention clearly worked, yet once again Matthews was beset by problems. Although the invention could have revolutionised the emerging advertising industry, no-one seemed interested. Matthews had little time to reflect on this new failure as darker clouds were gathering and in 1931 he faced bankruptcy. His bankruptcy papers make interesting reading.

Financially secure again, he embarked on another series of inventions. Seeing that the Second World War was on the horizon, he began to develop the idea of ærial mines fired by rockets or suspended by barrage balloons. These, he claimed, could create an effective ærial ring of defence round cities such as London. This idea was discussed seriously by the government but never taken up as a practical proposal. Matthews’ mind, never still, then came up with the idea of the ‘stratoplane’ – a “plane which could fly on the edges of space.” He became a member of the British Interplanetary Society and actively pushed forward ideas which led eventually to the development of rocket technology.

Genius or charlatan, probably a little of both, Grindell Matthews inspired intense debate and massive publicity. Some of his inventions such as the talking films, ærophone and sky-projector certainly worked and were years ahead of their time. Other ideas such as his theories of space travel would come to fruition later in the 20th century. 

What is it about early robot builders and "Death Rays"?  Prof. Harry May, the person behind "Alpha the Robot"  also claimed to have a "Death Ray."

See Alban J. Robert's later Mechanical Man here.

See all the Early Humanoid Robots here.