Harry Grindell Matthews—inventor extraordinaire

Matthews operating the Death Ray

If ever a man was the epitome of the ‘mad inventor‘ it was Harry Grindell Matthews, though his many supporters would perhaps bridle at the word ‘ mad’. But if he wasn’t dotty, he was certainly controversial and decidedly eccentric. For it was the habit of this electrical engineer, born in Winterbourne, now a northern suburb of Bristol, in 1881, to claim a startlingly interesting innovation while refusing to cooperate with interested parties, including government agencies. In 1911 he claimed to have invented a radio-telephone, which if developed might have been a prototype of our modern mobile; he also boasted that he had created the world’s first talking movie in 1921, but this too was never financed. He is best known today ( if he is known at all) for inventing an invisible Death Ray which he claimed would stop electrical machinery at a distance, thus immobilising enemy threats, such as aircraft and bombs. However, when an eager government stipulated that to convince the scientists he would be required to stop a petrol-driven motorcycle engine remotely, Matthews refused the challenge. In this press photo dated 1930 from the London based Sports and General agency, which found its way into the marvellous El Mundo archive, Matthews is shown on the right, cigarette in hand, while a group of engineers eagerly examine what appears to be the motorcycle engine which he was asked to stop. In another photo we see Matthews operating the Death Ray itself. Needless to say, the inventor’s refusal to cooperate in a controlled experiment spelt the end of this promising piece of technology.

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Undeterred, Matthews continued to offer new inventions. The most exciting was a Sky Projector, which he demonstrated with some success. Had this got off the ground we may have had laser-type shows in the 1930s. When at last he did manage to tempt serious investors to part with their money, he used much of it to build a state of the art laboratory and a private airfield overlooking the Swansea Valley at Clydach. His financial state received another boost in 1938 when he married an opera singer called Ganna Walska whose five former husbands had left her with a fortune of around $125m. Unfortunately, he did not live long to enjoy his good fortune. Matthews died in Swansea in 1941 at just 60.

Gloucestershire has produced at least another brilliant electrical engineer. Joe Meek, the equally eccentric electronic music pioneer who produced the cult favourite ‘Telstar’ in 1962, worked on radios as a teenage prodigy. His shed can still be seen at the rear of his father’s old shop (blue plaque) off the Market Place in Newent. [R.M.Healey]

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