Solar Power – The Strange History of ‘Weaponized Sunlight’

Did the Greek defenders of Syracuse focus the sun's energy and use it to burn Roman warships?

Did the Greek defenders of Syracuse focus the sun’s energy and use it to burn Roman warships?

A 37-floor London office tower made headlines last Wednesday after its curved, all-glass mirror design reflected (and then intensified) the afternoon sunlight enough to melt a number of vehicles parked on a street below.

The building, which is still under construction in the city’s financial district, has since been dubbed the ‘fryscaper’ by locals. One British journalist even managed to cook an egg in the glare cast by the structure.

The tower’s property managers, Land Securities and Canary Wharf Group, reported that they had no idea that their revolutionary reflective concave design posed such a hazard. They also point out that the focused beam of sunlight is only dangerous for a couple of hours a day (weather permitting) and will only decrease in strength as the sun’s position in the sky gradually shifts in the fall. In the meantime, the parking spaces in the path of the reflected sunlight have been cordoned off.

Ironically, these London property developers  managed to achieve by accident what at least two military powers from history tried to accomplish on purpose — that is harnessing solar energy and turning it into an energy weapon.

Set Your Phasers to ‘Greek’
As was reported on on Sept. 28, 2012: “During the Roman siege of Syracuse in 212 BCE, the Greek inventor Archimedes put his considerable genius to work helping to shore up defenses. According to contemporary accounts, one of his schemes involved placing giant parabolic mirrors at various points atop the city’s walls that could be used in concert to focus the sun’s ray’s onto distant targets (in this case, Roman warships). Other historians from antiquity suggested that it wasn’t actually mirrors Archimedes used but rather large magnifying glasses. In any case, the inventor’s beam weapon supposedly did set some of the invaders’ ships on fire. Over the years, a number of historians and scientists have tried to reproduce Archimedes’ death ray. Most recently, both the American television program Mythbusters and a group of students and faculty at MIT attempted to replicate the heat ray. The latter were able to ignite a simulated wooden ship hull using the mirrors after some initial setbacks. Archimedes also reportedly devised an enormous crane-like claw that could capsize or even lift up and drop Roman ships, however many historians have doubted that such a contraption was ever built. Super weapons or not, eventually the Romans managed to storm Syracuse. According to legend, the 78-year-old Archimedes was busy toiling in his workshop when enemy soldiers arrived at his residence. Mistaking them for Greeks, he chastised the spearmen for disturbing him, at which point they stabbed him to death.

Hitler’s Solar Death Ray
Last June, in an article on Third Reich super weapons or wunderwaffe, described how German engineers envisioned orbiting platforms that could function much like the British ‘fryscaper’. “Devised by researchers at a facility at Hillersleben in eastern Germany — the plan involved launching enormous orbiting mirrors in space that could focus the sun’s rays into a beams, which in turn could be directed onto land targets miles below. According to a recent Daily Mail article, the weapon would have involved mile-wide concave mirrors in geo-synchronous orbits more than 8,000 kilometers above the earth’s surface. The giant discs could be pivoted on demand to reflect and concentrate light from the sun and then project it back down to the earth. The plans for the weapon were unearthed by U.S. forces in 1945 and even reported by Life magazine. Records showed that the Nazis hoped to have their ‘sun gun’ ready for action sometime in the mid-1990s or early 21st Century.”

Water weapons
It wasn’t heat, but water that the Allies were aiming to unleash on Japan in 1945. According to a story on from last January, American scientists hoped that generating a string of seismic explosions deep below the surface of the Pacific would generate a Tsunami large enough to swamp the coastal regions of the Japanese home islands. Dubbed Project Seal, U.S. researchers planned to detonate 10 charges totalling 2 million pounds of high explosives spread in a line across several miles of ocean floor. When detonated, a 30-foot tall sea swell would be generated that would batter enemy shoreline and harbour. Tests conducted off the coast of New Zealand were promising, but the War Department eventually put a damper on the project in early 1945 in anticipation of the successful completion of the atom bomb.

2 comments for “Solar Power – The Strange History of ‘Weaponized Sunlight’

  1. 9 September, 2013 at 12:22 am

    I watched that Mythbusters episode with great interest myself! This blog was interesting to say the least and if you think about it, the sun’s energy would make for a great weapon.

  2. 21 July, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    What a great post! I found Hitler’s solar gun ray story to be very interesting! Thanks for sharing the facts and history!

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