Science: Sun Gun

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The scene was Allied press headquarters in Paris on a rainy summer day. Facing the half-dozing correspondents, Lieut. Colonel John A. Keck, onetime Pittsburgh engineer and now chief of Allied technical intelligence on German weapons, began quietly: "This will make Buck Rogers seem as if he lived in the Gay '90s." He proceeded to unfold the improbable story of what German scientists were up to when V-E day interrupted them.

At a research center in Hillersleben a group of them were solemnly laying plans for a "space station" 5,100 miles up, from which a "sun gun" would have the whole earth at its mercy. Assuming that at that height a floating structure would be beyond the pull of the earth's gravity, they proposed to build a platform for launching rockets into interstellar space and for harnessing the sun's heat. By use of a huge reflector, like a burning mirror, they calculated that enough heat could be focused on a chosen area to make an ocean boil or to burn up a city in a flash. Their sun gun could also be used, they pointed out, to produce steam and electric power at global receiving stations.

German physicists had already figured out the sun gun's necessary size (3½ sq. mi.) and composition (metallic sodium). Presumably they also had ideas about how the space station might be kept under control (it would have to revolve with the earth like a satellite) and be supplied with air for its inhabitants. Unperturbed by Allied officers' skeptical crossexamination, the Germans coolly announced they were certain the thing could be done within 50 or 100 years.

In a learned editorial the science-minded New York Times painstakingly picked flaws in the sun-gun idea, concluded austerely: "There is reason ... to believe that the rocket experts were merely dreaming over their ersatz beer." But what the Germans had already done was amazing enough.*Lieut. Colonel Keck'revealed a long list of discovered Nazi contraptions. Items:

¶J A V-2 rocket which could be fired into the air from a submarine submerged 300 feet under water.

¶A 32-inch railroad cannon, probably the biggest gun ever made (and used by the Germans at Sevastopol), which fired an 8-ton shell.

¶An antiaircraft rocket capable of exploding within ten yards of a target ten miles in the air.† (Said Lieut. Colonel Keck: the Allies expect that rockets will soon replace all other types of antiaircraft weapons.)

¶An infrared telescope sight enabling snipers to see targets at night. ¶A rocket (almost perfected) with a range of 1,200-1,800 miles. (The German scientists said they were well on the way toward a rocket that would reach the U.S. (TIME, June 25)—were sure that within a few years mail and passenger rockets would cross the Atlantic in 40 minutes.) Through a spy system, Allied officers got reports during the war by German scientific work, but there were still surprises. The scientists talked freely and most thought that Hitler had lost the war to diverting too much effort to "screwball'' weapons. Lieut. Colonel Keck and his staff, all hardheaded engineers, considered the Germans' experiments, even the sun gun, no laughing matter. Said Keck soberly: "We were impressed with their practical engineering minds and their distaste for the fantastic."

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