World War II was brought to a screeching halt at 8:15 A.M. on August 6, 1945 when the United States debuted the world’s first weapon of mass destruction in Hiroshima. The absolute destruction of this city, and Nagasaki a few days later, were the first and last time that nuclear weapons have been used in warfare. During the Cold War, the use of these weapons became unthinkable, as the doctrine of mutually assured destruction took hold. However, nuclear weapons aren’t the only possible way to cause massive amounts of damage, and over the years many new and horrible ideas have been proposed.
The Nazi Sun Gun
No list of super weapons would be complete without mention of everyone’s favorite super-villains: the Nazis. During World War II, these maniacal monsters conceived a plethora of methods for causing pain and death. From biological and chemical weapons aimed at the individual to bombs designed to destroy entire cities, they left no technological stone unturned in their quest of destruction. One of the most potentially terrifying of these concepts was their Sun Gun.
While it might sound relatively cute and harmless, the Sun Gun would do much more than give you a tan. It was designed as an orbital concave mirror 3.5 miles in diameter that would focus sunlight onto a specific point on the Earth, like a child burning ants with a magnifying glass. Fortunately for the Allies, and the rest of the world, the Nazis never even succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit, much less a miles-wide orbital space station of death.
The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, and according to the scientists who worked on the project, it is technically feasible. It’s not even a new idea; in 212 BCE it was said that the mathematician Archimedes single-handedly defended the city of Syracuse from Roman invasion by burning their ships with focused sunlight from a polished copper mirror. This story is not likely to be true, as it would take many minutes of sunlight focused on the same spot to ignite a flame, but the theory is sound.
Though the idea originated with science fiction author Jerry Pournelle, Project Thor is completely feasible, and actually rather simple. Essentially, large tungsten poles would be inserted into Earth orbit, and rain like meteors onto enemy positions when called down. The huge amounts of kinetic energy gathered by these objects falling from orbit is what gives them their destructive force. It is calculated that a tungsten pole roughly 6m tall impacting the ground at Mach 10 would produce the destructive force of 11.5 tons of TNT. While not nearly as destructive as nuclear weapons, these weapons have the benefit of being rather simple to build, and easy to fire. Launches would be much more difficult to detect than nuclear launches, and it would only take a matter of minutes for the weapon to fall out of orbit and strike the target. Additionally, the destructive force can be scaled up or down by increasing or decreasing the size of the projectile.
Referred to as “Rods from God,” such weapons are not prohibited by either the Outer Space Treaty or the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, and as such are very attractive to any countries seeking a military advantage while trying to fly under the radar. Of course, the largest technical challenge of any weapons system like this is getting the projectiles into orbit in the first place. Currently, only a handful of countries have the capability to do so.
Tesla’s Death Beam
Nikola Tesla was an incredible inventor, responsible for much of the electronic gadgetry we take for granted today. If he had been better at dealing with the US patent office, it’s likely that just about every electronic device you own would have his name on it. However, Tesla was more interested in the science of his inventions than the profit, and so his name fell into relative obscurity as the 20th century marched on.
One of Tesla’s most imagination-capturing ideas was for a death ray that could annihilate targets hundreds of miles away. Tesla himself was not very militaristic, but he naively imagined that his death rays would prevent wars, rather than cause them. He proposed a series of towers arrayed along a country’s borders that would fire “concentrated beams of particles” at invading enemy craft. His idea was to use an enormous electrostatic generator to accelerate particles of mercury until they became a high-powered stream of bullets wielding several million volts. Tesla hoped that a border protected by such towers would be impregnable to enemy invasion, making war obsolete. Certainly, it would be difficult to invade any country defended by death beams, but what would stop countries from turning these death beams on each other?
While none of Tesla’s death beam towers were ever constructed, it has been widely hypothesized that he was able to create such beams anyway from his radio tower in Colorado Springs. Some have even proposed that he is to blame for the Tunguska event, a mysterious explosion that occurred in Siberia in 1908.
A weapon that can cause an earthquake or other seismic event is the Holy Grail of mad scientists everywhere. Not only would such a weapon be unrivaled in destructive power, it would be impossible to track and easy to avoid the repercussions of its use. The user of such a weapon could claim to have no knowledge of it and destroy whole cities at will, blaming the whole thing on “acts of God.” While this concept might turn out to be impossible or infeasible, that hasn’t stopped the governments of the world from taking the threat seriously. The Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques is an international treaty ratified by 75 states in 1978 that prohibits the use of environmental modification techniques to cause earthquakes and tsunamis, amongst other phenomena.
Some governments have even attempted to implement such weapons. Two Soviet programs, “Mercury” and “Volcano” in the late 80’s and early 90’s apparently attempted to use electromagnetism to induce Earthquakes below targets from a great distance. Three tests were conducted under the Mercury program in 1987, and Volcano’s final test was in 1992. Whether or not they were successful is unknown, but it seems unlikely as these programs were scrapped. New Zealand even had a program called Project Seal during World War II that attempted to create tsunami waves to be used as weapons of war. Although the project failed due to errors in the theoretical basis of the plan, it was reported in 1999 that such a weapon would be feasible, given a large enough explosion. So the next time there’s a huge tsunami in the Pacific or Indian Ocean, keep a watchful eye on those militaristic New Zealanders.
While nuclear weapons have been and remain the most destructive force at our command, the day is rapidly approaching when our options for annihilating each other will proliferate and become easier to produce. As more and more countries venture into space and increase their technological base, the threats from weapons systems like Project Thor become increasingly realistic. What makes these weapons even more terrifying is their ability to circumvent treaties dealing with traditional weapons of mass destruction, and the ability of their users to remain anonymous. The weapons systems in this article aren’t even at the forefront of or technological capabilities, and have only been declassified and described because they aren’t likely to be implemented. That means the plans that remains classified must be even more terrifying. Sleep tight!