Ku-Go: The World War II Death Ray

Historians may note that World War II was the last great “movie war.” In those days, you could do many things that are impossible today, yet make for great movie drama. You can’t sneak a fleet of ships across the oceans anymore. Nor could you dig tunnels right under your captor’s nose. Another defining factor is that it doesn’t seem we seek out superweapons anymore.

A Churchill Bullshorn plough for clearning minefields — one of Hobart’s “Funnies”

Sure, we develop better planes, tanks, submarines, and guns. But we aren’t working on anything — that we know of — as revolutionary as a rocket, an atomic bomb, or even radar was back in the 1940s. The Germans worked on Wunderwaffe, including guided missiles, jets, suborbital rocket bombers, and a solar-powered space mirror to burn terrestrial targets. Everyone was working on a nuclear bomb, of course. The British had Hobart’s Funnies as well as less successful entries like the Panjandrum — a ten-foot rocket-driven wheel of explosives.

Death Ray

Perhaps the holy grail of all the super weapons — both realized and dreamed of was the “death ray.” Of course, Tesla claimed to have one that didn’t use rays, but particles, but no one ever successfully built one and there was debate if it would work. Tesla didn’t like the term death ray, partly because it wasn’t a ray at all, but also because it required a huge power plant and, therefore, wasn’t mobile. He envisioned it as a peacekeeping defensive weapon, rendering attacks so futile that no one would dare attempt them.

The Japanese, however, were in active development of Ku-Go, a real death ray. In fact, the device used a magnetron — high tech for those days, but now found in every kitchen microwave. They poured about a half-million dollars into research under General Sueyoshi Kusaba. The goal was to develop a microwave weapon that could kill people, but also disable engines from a distance. They did have success on animal tests in 1943. Even two meters away, the weapon caused damage to test animals. Engines didn’t see much effect unless they were totally exposed to the beam.

Scale Up

By 1944, they built an 80 cm, 30 kW tube. The tube drove a dipole and a 1 m reflector. Remember magnetrons were new tech then, so a frequency of about 375 MHz was quite high for the day. The good news? The weapon killed a rabbit at 30 meters. The bad news? It took 10 minutes. A groundhog held out for 20 minutes.

By 1945, there were plans to couple four tubes to get an output power of up to 300 kW and a much bigger reflector. They hoped to increase the 10-minute kill distance to about a kilometer. But the war’s end stopped everything.

The US report on the tech is declassified now (start on page 71). Meanwhile, in Germany, there were two different projects of a similar nature. One was a particle accelerator with a steerable bundle of beryllium rods. The other was in Dresden and was largely destroyed during the bombing, although scientists recovered what they could and turned it over to Patton’s force. In truth, it appears that many of these projects were known to be pointless by the scientists, but having vital war research in work prevented your staff from being drafted to the front lines.

There is a giant bunker in France that locals claim was to be the home of one of Hitler’s death rays as well as an assembly and storage point for rockets (see the video below). While nothing came of the German death rays for the Germans, they did indirectly help the British.

Modern Mechanix and the magnesium heat ray gun of death!

In 1935, newspapers reported the Germans were developing a death ray. Of course, this wasn’t anything new, as seen in the accompanying ad from a 1935 magazine. But with war looming, people wrote to the government, concerned about what this might mean. The British Air Ministry asked physicist Robert Watson-Watt if such a weapon was feasible.

Within ten days, Watt responded that such a weapon was unlikely, but that radio waves might help detect approaching aircraft. While the idea of radar goes back to a 1904 German patent and — fundamentally — back to Hertz’s work in 1888, this was the start of the British investigating in radar research that arguably won the Battle of Britain and, perhaps, the overall war. Radar certainly beat previous plane detection methods. Of course, some of the most advanced weapons of the day were so secret that most people didn’t know about them at the time. Like the Norden bombsight, which might not have been as good as it claimed to be, but was still effective.

(Banner image: an entirely fictional death-ray because we couldn’t find any of Ku Go itself. “Space Pilot X Ray Gun” by [Oxyman])

66 thoughts on “Ku-Go: The World War II Death Ray

  1. “They did have success on animal tests in 1943. Even two meters away, the weapon caused damage to test animals. Engines didn’t see much effect unless they were totally exposed to the beam.”

    Wrap them in aluminum foil.

  2. I am slightly puzzled by the exposee of this article. It sounds as if “war” is a cool thing – which most likely is not the intention of the author (or is it). We are, today, developing FAR more fascinating and potentially beneficial things than “death rays”. If you look at the advances in medicine (including, but not limited to, genectics), electronics (computers), whatever you want to call “AI”, cold fusion (even though we may be miles away still), transportation.
    It feels like the author has been very over-focused on weapons, killing machines and ways to torture animals and humans and somehow missed that there’s more to science and engineering than that.

      1. One can always have peace…..it’s called being a “subject”.
        Bend your knee and do as your master commands.
        Enforcers being “brown shirts”/jack booted thugs.
        Witness the persecution of Christians in Canada – and UK.
        Being arrested for silently praying ? seriously ??

        Peace through blind obedience and compliance.
        Such a wonderful utopia.

        For the record, a family member fought in WW2, in the pacific.
        Had it not been for Truman, the lives sacrificed would’ve been
        exponentially greater.

        “Peace through strength” is not just a catch phrase.

        Si Vis Pacem, Parabellum – if you want peace, prepare for war.

        Weakness invites conflict.

        Now *this* would be an interesting weapon !!
        “Gravimetric torpedoes are torpedoes used by the Borg. The weapon emits a complex phase variance of gravitons to create a gravimetric distortion capable of tearing starships apart. “

      2. +1

        My grandma told me stories about WK2, when she was a little girl.
        About the bombers who threw bombs and the neighbor families who died in their cellars, the screams of dying people, the low flying planes shooting at citizens – mainly women and children on the run since most men were at war, the burning phosphor who burnt people alive, way down to their bones. Horrible stuff, making the Grimm Brother’s fairy tales and Struwwelpeter stories look tame. 😔

        That being said, I believe the author/article was looking at the technology mainly and war/military as an origin or driving force of invention (“Not macht erfinderisch”) rather than praising war as such. Also, I believe, if people were truly bad, they wouldn’t regret so much all the time.

        I’m afraid it’s part of human nature that humans can be easily manipulated/impressed and then do stupid things. Especially if it happens at young age, when they’re defenseless.

        We’re social beings who like to believe in a common thing and feel the urge to work together to solve problems. Too bad if it’s propaganda who catches on then (like in WK2 Germany). That’s also why some of our ancestors fell for the lies in WK2 (I’m not excusing their horrible actions, though). 😢

    1. WWII was an enormous leap in every single field. Centuries worth of progress in mere years, and not just concerning weaponry. Physics, medicine, energy, electronics, communication, computing, et cetera et cetera. Nothing in our modern era would work without developments made during that period, explicitly because we had to do it for the war effort.

      In peacetime, we have basically done absolutely nothing except hyper-focus on infotainment and electronic communications to the point of inflicting brain damage on entire generations. We haven’t invented anything of note since the 1970s. We have been stuck on the damn iphone for multiple decades. Every “breakthrough” has been mostly a case of irresponsible science journalism. A couple very recent ones come to mind.

      This is just coping. You are conflating your moralizing worldview with the undeniable fact that massive life-or-death contests are a fantastic motivator for innovation. It’s not pretty, but it’s true. We would have never ever made it to the moon without paperclip nazis. People don’t like to think about it.

      1. “WWII was an enormous leap in every single field. Centuries worth of progress in mere years, and not just concerning weaponry. Physics, medicine, energy, electronics, communication, computing, et cetera et cetera. Nothing in our modern era would work without developments made during that period, explicitly because we had to do it for the war effort. ”

        I don’t mean to disagree, but there were a few interesting inventions made earlier, also.
        The spark gap transmitter, the electric arc transmitter (as a tube predecessor allowing for modulated signals), the crystal radio, the Audion radio (regenerative receiver), Morse code (A German, Gerke, helped to develope morse telegraphy as we know it), FAX (by radio/by wire), Hellschreiber and RTTY, the landline telephone.. The Braun tube (CRT), the Nipkow disk, videotelephone cabins in Germany (pre-war, see Georg Oskar Schubert), etc. The first electronic computers by Konrad Zuse (pre-war).

          1. And Zuse’s motivation for building a computer was to compute aerodynamics and other engineering tables, which he needed for his work at an airplane factory owned by Henschel & Son – who coincidentally started producing the Panzer I tanks in 1935 for the Nazis. So the very reason he needed a computer in the first place was because the Nazis needed new weapons.

          2. I don’t disagree. I just meant that the “idea” was already there before. If WK2 hadn’t happened, who knows if the idea hadn’t been brought to reality in peace times, eventually.

            The calculations of, say, aerodynamics and fluids or waves might be related to each others. So a Z computer might have been useful for weather forecasting, for calculation of floods (natural disasters). And so on. 🤷‍♂️

      2. That’s a proven bullshit. Weapons related areas would advance slower,others faster. Overall everything would be better, because there would be much more money available to EVERY branch,along with much more workforce.
        And your statement that ONLY von Braun could get people to the Moon Is an absolute crap.

    2. Contrawise, should every article focus on fluffy bunny science? I also question whether there is a clear distinction in either direction. Just taking the example of chemical warfare: without attempts to save billions of lives, we wouldn’t have discovered nerve agents, at least as readily as we did and, in reverse, it’s unlikely that chemotherapy would have arrived within decades of the time it did without astute observations of the side effects of mustard gas exposure. Even something as basic as modern firearms gave us precision engineering, without which our entire industrial society would be left wanting and precise mechanisms would be solely a curiosity enjoyed by the rich.

      Putting that aside, it’s entirely reasonable to be awestruck by the ingenuity of weapons of war without for a second endorsing their use.

  3. “But we aren’t working on anything…”

    Hypersonic missiles.
    Laser / directed-energy weapons.
    Autonomous Weapons.
    Swarm Weapons / Swarm Munitions.
    Unmanned Space planes.
    One size fits all VTOL aircraft.

    Just a few things that spring to mind when I hear we are not working on anything interesting. Maybe most of those aren’t as big as the atomic bomb, but they seem “revolutionary as a rocket” in spirit.

    1. All of these are projects from the 1960s. These are projects of refinement, not revolution. If you showed our modern world to people from that time, they would despair out of disappointment that we have basically only invented much much better computers (and we use them to exploit flaws in our limbic systems). Aside from that, we have absolutely wrecked the economy they had, sold out our entire industry to globalists, and reduced our lives to an unsustainable IQ-shredder college-to-information-office-worker cycle. Almost exclusively.

      1. And rockets have been used in warfare since 13th century. Radar was demonstrated before the start of WWII. Sooo… what?

        You come across as a kid fantasizing about “cowboys and indians” without any clue about the true horror of that era, or how far we’ve come since then. But no matter, all is good. No world wars for 80 years and if the price of peace is occasionally reading your cookie internet rants, I’m fine with that.

        1. Radar but not the magnetron.

          Rockets, but not liquid fueled rocket engines.

          Jet engines also came about, plus all the other exotic engines like ramjets… which simply did not exist before, and had no point or purpose except to lob bombs at your enemies.

          Many examples of primitive versions of technology exist from prior ages, but they are mostly useless until you have a breakthrough that opens up all the possibilities, like going to the moon. People don’t realize what they can do with it until they actually can do it, so they tend to ignore the technology and invest nothing in its development. War forces people to look for more advanced solutions to gain an edge quickly, and gives you the excuse and the resources, whereas under normal peace time economy nobody would take any great risks.

          1. Sure, you can cherry pick examples, and claim it’s major advancement or that it’s just an incremental version of an existing design, all of which feels arbitrary, other than for the atom bomb. E.g. TG claims laser weapons, AI weapons, etc, are 1960s and nothing new….

            Note, jet engines appeared before WWII, as did liquid fueled rockets.

            I do agree that war, especially a real war and a big war, will make people get their stuff together. Necessity is the mother of invention.

          2. Don’t forget that there was WW1 before WW2, and many of these technologies were developed for military purposes anyways – to prepare for the next war.

            Half the time what anyone does with an invention, is to try and sell it to the military.

          3. Speaking of Goddard:

            “In 1920, the Smithsonian published his original paper, “A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes,” in which he included a small section stressing that rockets could be used to send payloads to the Moon.

            Unfortunately, the press got wind of this and the next day, the New York Times wrote a scathing editorial denouncing his theories as folly. Goddard was ridiculed and made to look like a fool. He responded to a reporter’s question by stating, “Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace.””

      2. Everything is basically an outgrowth of older research and discoveries. Besides, the communication systems we have now were hardly even dreamed of in the 60´s. We, the people, wrecked our economy, because we, the people, dont want to pay a premium price for a premium product, nor do we want to work for peanuts. A universal quality for most humans is a desire for easy living and financial security. Cant really blame industry for selling their aging complexes to foreigners when the price offered is better than domestic investors are willing to pay.

        1. You can blame them for a lack of foresight, or having the foresight – for callous disregard of their fellow people.

          It was never unclear that turning the labor force into pure services and manufactured needs for luxuries, while outsourcing and off-shoring all the real value generating industries and consumable commodities, would lead to a serious trade deficit that can only be sustained by perpetually printing money, which would then lead to growing income and wealth disparity as most people are forced to take on debt to keep the economy rolling.

          It’s just more profitable for the middle-men and those at the top, so they didn’t say a thing.

        2. The point of the services economy is: we have people A, B, C… etc. who don’t produce any real value, but they still need money to eat, so they take on loans to buy value from the market and then sell that value on at profit. A sells to B, who sells to C… all the way through to Z who sells back to A in a big loop. Money goes one way through the loop, debt goes the other way, and as long as the balls stay in the air, the people can keep juggling to claim a share of real value to themselves.

          None of these people actually produce anything, they don’t grow food, dig up minerals, raise animals, fell trees… they essentially just buy and sell to render a “service”. Technically, many do work, such as turning coffee beans into coffee and pouring it into a cup for you, which may be considered “value adding” labor through the refinement of the coffee, but none of that feeds back into actually having more coffee or anything else to consume, so their labor is merely taking what exists and having someone consume it for money – it destroys value from the system.

          So the service economy consumes value for money, doesn’t replace what it spends, and creates more money to make the whole thing go around. This was perfectly comprehensible and predictable even back in the 60’s – and it was arguably more clear back then when people still had proper jobs. Then came the “casino economy” and people started making money out of money, Neo-liberals started to measure productivity and social progress solely in terms of GDP, and the line between what is productive and “productive” became blurred – and here we are today with 80% of the workforce in “services” doing nothing but wasting time and resources, wondering why they aren’t paid above minimum wage.

          1. Clearly people who pay too much for bad coffee think they are getting value for their money. I don’t get it, they must care about impressing other idiots, a lot.

            The real no value make work is in bureaucracy.

            The bosses gain power by growing headcount, nobody cares if anything gets done.

            Corporate bureaucracy at least should be profit motivated, but in practice, not always. Regulated monopolies are no better than government. Their headcount gives them political power, which is all that matters in that space. Also politicians air-thief nieces, nephews and spawn all get no-show jobs.

            California government has a ‘General Service Administration’. It exists solely as a place to transfer state workers that can’t be fired. Just to get them out of the way. It’s a six story building south of Broadway in Sacramento, 1 whole city block. Going to lunch near there is a freak show. Apparently they’re bored enough that they spend all day infighting over nothing. Grievances are the most common topic of discussion. Likely why they are there in the first place.

          2. >Service, like programming computers?

            It depends on what the computer is used for. Maybe it controls a factory, maybe it serves TikTok videos to kids telling them to eat laundry detergent.

          3. >Clearly people who pay too much for bad coffee think they are getting value for their money.

            Many argue that everything is worth what people are willing to pay. Well, if you truly believe that, paying ten dollars for a cup of coffee makes it have that much value and it all works out.

    2. “…but they seem “revolutionary as a rocket” in spirit.”
      Then you don’t understand how big a change rockets were.

      Before ICBMs, if you wanted to blow something up, you needed to go there yourself and do it(gross simplification).

      You needed bomber fleets, infrastructure, and logistics near your target.
      You had to have enire campaigns to capture islands to use as stepping stones, so you could get close enough to deliver.

      And if the place you wanted to blow up was too far inside their borders? Too bad. You’d better start building a supply base in there.

      Rocketry changed war from:
      We need a base 10 minutes from everywhere.
      We can hide our weapons at home and still use them whenever we want.

      They also unlocked the whole “Space” tech-tree.

      1. Other than the “you don’t understand…” slight I’ll write off to poor writing skills, I agree with that.

        But the stuff you are talking about didn’t happen during WW2, ICBMs started afterwards, as did the real space tech-tree work, of which we’ve barely scratched the surface so far. Not a musk fan but SpaceX has unlocked more of the tree in the last 2 years than anything in the last 20 years.

        Sure, there was advancements in WW2 that were used later, but those are also based on work started over a decade before the outbreak of war. WW2 accelerated funding of existing good ideas (and bad ideas that mostly died off), but it’s not the creator of those ideas.

        I feel you are highlight more examples that counter the “But we aren’t working on anything…” claim Al Williams made in the article. This idea that war is good for innovation is probably more of reflection of the impact, still remaining, from propaganda generated by the factions involved (at the time and afterwards). Propaganda echos if you like.

  4. > In truth, it appears that many of these projects were known to be pointless by the scientists, but having vital war research in work prevented your staff from being drafted to the front lines.

    For years I was curious about why Germany dumped a lot of money and effort on some absolutely bonkers science projects in the middle of the war, and that’s the best explanation I ever saw!

      1. And they didn’t toletate failures so well. Scientists and other groups had to always worry about their lives and their beloved ones. Some of them, like V. Braun, had dreamt of peaceful or commercial use of their inventions, like going to the moon eventually. The ideas of Ziolkowski were known since late 19th century (space exploration, rocket science)..

        In 1920s Germany, as far as I know, science fiction movies like Metropolis (1927) or Jule Verne inspired movies (“A Trip to the Moon”, 1902) were being shown already. Especially Berlin was, by comparison, generally very progressive and open-minded at this time, with women being modern, educated/confident and with popular comedians making fun about society. In stark contrast to post-war era.

        1. von Braun was pragmatic and ruthless. He continued his research even when the nazis started using POW forced labour in assembling rockets and construction projects. Granted, had he stopped his research in protest, he would have ended up in a work camp himself, or shot.

  5. > Sure, we develop better planes, tanks, submarines, and guns. But we aren’t working on anything — that we know of — as revolutionary as a rocket, an atomic bomb, or even radar was back in the 1940s.

    That depends in which battle-space one wishes to compete. Alas, we are developing far, far more elegant capabilities. Indeed for some of those capabilities, there are erudite folks praying fervently that we will never weaponise them.

    1. The most incredible modern war capabilities are vast digital social networks containing automated facilities for scanning billions of thoughts for certain ideological content, then nudging or censoring certain directions in ways that are imperceptible to the end user as being manipulative. That’s the current generation warfare, and we are deploying it constantly. Perfect ideological control and invisible propaganda networks make democracy totally obsolete; democracy is now simply the rule of whoever currently has hold of the levers of this machine. Shooting wars have been relegated to proxy events on the fringes of the empire for nearly a century now.

      1. Speaking of which, I just witnessed a whole long thread of conversation just vanish as I was typing a reply. Got greeted with a message saying something like, “Replying to non-approved message is not allowed”.

        Many many websites and comment boards use the same filtering service, and whoever owns it gets to dictate what is approved and not.

      2. Indoctrination always backfires.

        With secret police to back it up, the backfire will be silent.
        But absent that it will push smart people in the opposite direction.
        Examine 100 Marxists, not a smart one in the lot.

        Especially when it’s obviously really really stupid indoctrination, like the current American version.

        Ask yourself: How many people actually said ‘no to drugs’ because an obviously pilled to the gills first lady repeatedly told them to?
        Derping ‘late stage capitalism’ will work no better.

  6. “Everyone was working on a nuclear bomb”

    Nah, just the US. The UK handed over its preliminary research to the Manhattan Project, and Germany never seriously worked on the idea. The Soviet Union only became interested in developing a bomb once they knew the US had already done it.

      1. In hindsight, yes.

        Apparently Heisenberg did some math wrong. They were on a dead end path. Some speculate he did it on purpose.

        Nobody knew this for sure at the time. There might have been a few that understood the physics and got the intelligence that were pretty sure. But whos going to listen to those eggheads.

        1. The plant was only able to produce about 10 liters per month, which would have been insufficient for making nuclear bombs or the reactors for breeding any significant amounts of fissile materials.

          1. Heisenberg’s calcs said that critical mass for Uranium was tons.
            Their ‘reactor’ design was sub critical.

            In hindsight, they weren’t even close, wasting time and money. Where sort of sniffing around H-bombs, but no.

      2. The heavy water operation at the site was a side-product of nitrogen fixing, so the Nazis could use the Norwegian hydroelectric plant to produce ammonia for conventional explosives. The Nazis would have wanted the site anyways, and the allies would have bombed it regardless.

  7. “You can’t sneak a fleet of ships across the oceans anymore”

    The BBC documentary following HMS Queen Elizabeth they literally did that to the Russian fleet who were tracking them – turned off all the lights & radar at sunset, changed direction and sailed off, come daybreak the Russian fleet were busy sailing round in circles looking for them where they were yesterday. Incredible that that could work in this age but it did.

    1. One counterexample disproves such a broad statement.

      WWII, the cold War, American Civil war, Reconquista of Spain, Six day war, Sunni/Shea war etc etc. All produced pragmatically good outcomes.

      Granting in the last case it isn’t good for either participant, it is still good for the planet. It was good job getting Saddam out of the way, so it could restart. Saudi’s hated that…How we know it was a great Machiavellian move.

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