Monday 16 October 2017

126 Death Ray Matthews

Death Ray Matthews’
Last month an Evening Post article contained a Craig Cefn Parc resident’s recollections about Harry Grindell Matthews, popularly called Death Ray Matthews, a pioneer inventor described by Churchill as being “100 years too advanced”.
Born in 1880 at Winterbourne in Gloucestershire, Matthews enlisted in Baden-Powell’s South African Constabulary during the Boer War, becoming interested in wireless telephony.  Subsequently he became an electrical engineer, though he was something of a visionary, interested in the hidden powers of radio and light.  
Matthews transmitted the first wireless press message from Newport to Cardiff in 1912, and in order to transmit speech from the ground to an aircraft he developed an Aerophone, which he demonstrated to King George V at Buckingham Palace.  After the outbreak of the First World War the government offered £25,000 to anyone who could devise a weapon against zeppelins or remote controlled unmanned vehicles.  In the presence of Admiralty representatives Matthews demonstrated with a searchlight beam that he could control a launch on an artificial lake in Richmond Park by using light-sensitive selenium cells.  But his invention was never used, though subsequently Lord Fisher made him an advisor on the Board of Invention and Research. 
Matthews experimented in recording sound directly onto film, and claimed that an interview with Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, recorded before his final expedition south, was the world's first talking picture, though that was not the case.
During the inter-war period when there was concern about lethal rays, Matthews claimed to have developed ones that could stop an engine by de-activating the magneto.  In 1924 he made a short film to promote his invention the death ray – alleging that with enough power he might be able to shoot down an aeroplane: this was described on the Pathé News as “war’s latest terror”.  A 1925 photo purports to show a night demonstration on Flat Holm Island, though Matthews was reluctant to have his inventions scrutinised or tested – citing a fear of industrial espionage.  After previous bad experiences with alleged inventors, the Air Ministry was wary of proceeding further, but there was concern lest Matthews sell his death ray to another country, for he visited France and the United States.  The High Court in London even granted an injunction to Matthews's investors that forbade him from selling the rights to the death ray.  
In 1930 at Hampstead he demonstrated his latest invention, a “sky projector” to project an image onto clouds in the sky.  But it was not successful, and he faced bankruptcy, having used up much of his investors' money by living in expensive hotels.  
Helped by new financial backers, Matthews moved in 1934 to upland Gower, where in a remote area he built Tor Clawdd, a large white bungalow on two acres of land.  During construction he was a popular lodger at a farmhouse on Mynydd y Gwair, and would dine at the Masons Arms in Rhyd-y-pandy.  Tor Clawdd, standing a few miles south of Penlle’r castell, contained six bedrooms and two bathrooms, a laboratory, with mains electricity and its own supply from a generator.  It also had water from a man-made well, a private airstrip for light aircraft (Matthews was a qualified pilot), and was surrounded by a tall electrically-guarded fence with steel gates.  Matthews employed a housekeeper and a handyman/gardener, while he worked on a system to detect submarines.  He enjoyed solitary rambling in that remote area.
Following two marriages of short duration, at the age of 57 he married in 1937 the Polish-American Ganna (Hannah) Walska, whose unrealistic operatic aspirations rivalled those of Florence Foster Jenkins.  She had accumulated a fortune from four previous marriages. 
But they separated after four years, shortly before Matthews died at Tor Clawdd of a heart attack aged 61.  After cremation at Pontypridd, his ashes were scattered at Tor Clawdd.  A 2009 blue plaque outside his Gloucestershire birthplace commemorates “one of the most enigmatic and shadowy inventors of the twentieth century”.

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