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"I operate by a code that makes me responsible for what I do, makes me definitely, directly, genuinely responsible. I am precisely the kind of person I made myself out to be."
- Harlan Ellison

Death-Ray  
  A thin ray of electric light that melts flesh away from the bone.  

This is as far as I know the first use of this phrase.

At five minutes to six Count Valdemar and Admiral Nazanoff went down on to the fore-deck. At the same moment that they were making their last examination of the guns, a thin ray of electric light shone out from the top of a little rocky promontory to the north of the harbour, where there was a little white tower which the invaders had taken for a harmless and necessary lighthouse. The ray fell directly on the fore-deck of the Ivan.

"Ah," said the admiral, stepping back under the protection of the top works, "take care, your excellency, that is only about a hundred metres off, and they may have one of those infernal rays there."

"It is six o'clock," said the count, taking his watch in his left hand and the lanyard of the gun in his right. The beam of ghostly light wavered and fell on him as he stepped back to pull. The next instant the flesh of his uplifted hand melted away from the bones, the lanyard fell away. With a cry of agony he dropped his hand, and then the terrible ray fell on his face. The horror-stricken officers and men saw it change from a face to a skull, watched his fur cap shrivel up and vanish, the hair and flesh on his scalp disappear. Then he dropped, and the bare skull struck the steel deck with a queer sharp click.

A sudden paralysis of horror fell upon officers and men alike, until the admiral roared out an order to turn the port gun on to the lighthouse. He was obeyed, and the gun was fired hurriedly; the shell struck the rock just below the lighthouse and exploded with a terrific report, but the living rock held good, and the deadly ray shone on. The gunner who had fired it was blasted to a skeleton in a moment, and the rest of the officers and men ran for shelter like so many frightened hares. They were ready to face any ordinary danger, but this was too awful for mortal courage.

Then the ray wandered over the fore-decks and bridges of the other ships till it reached the Caiman, on the bridge of which Admiral Dumont was standing, a horrified spectator of what had happened on the Ivan. He had a pistol in his hand; a shot was to be the signal for the French vessels to open fire. The ray fell on his hand as he raised it to fire, the hand shrivelled to bone before he could pull the trigger. But the gunners had seen the signal, and the guns roared out. Over fifty guns of all calibres roared and crackled for a minute or so, and a brief hurricane of shell swept across the stony plain between the harbour and the works.

Then it stopped. Every gun was silent, for not a man dared go near it. Every officer and man who had shown himself in the open had been reduced to a heap of bones before he could get back under shelter. Then those who were out of reach of the terrible death-rays saw six long guns rise from the masked batteries beside the two towers and over the central gate. There was no flash or report, but the next moment six hundred-pound shells, charged with Vandelite, had struck the French and Russian vessels, and, as a fighting force, the expeditions had practically ceased to exist.

Every ship was hit either in her hull or her top works. The steel structures crumpled up and collapsed under the terrible energy of the explosion. The steel-walled casemates were cracked and ripped open as though they had been built of common deal, and every man on deck within twenty yards of the explosion dropped dead or insensible. Both admirals were killed almost at the same moment.

The guns sank back and rose again, and again the explosions crashed out on board the doomed ships. The death-ray played continuously over their decks and every man who showed himself fell dead with the flesh withered from his face and skull. The terrible bombardment lasted for about a quarter of an hour, and then when only the Caiman and Ivan were left afloat, and the crews of the other vessels had either gone down with them or had swum or scrambled ashore in the boats, the guns ceased, and the rays were shut off.

From The World Masters, by George Griffith.
Published by John Long in 1903
Additional resources -

Compare to the heat ray from War of the Worlds (1898) by HG Wells, the short-wave surgical knife from Boomerang (1953) by Eric Frank Russell, the ray gun from The Black Star Passes (1930) by John W. Campbell, the pencil heat ray from Brigands of the Moon (1930) by Ray Cummings and the flesh gun from The Computer Connection (1974) by Alfred Bester.

See also the death projector from ML Staley's The Stolen Mind (1930).

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from The World Masters
  More Ideas and Technology by George Griffith
  Tech news articles related to The World Masters
  Tech news articles related to works by George Griffith

Death-Ray-related news articles:
  - Electrolux Death Ray
  - MTHEL - Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser
  - AESA Radars Used As 'Death Ray' Weapons?

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