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"I think a lot of kids whose mental growth outruns their maturity gravitate to science fiction."
- Dan Simmons

Heat Ray  
  First use of what appears to be a laser weapon.  

The Martians fought with weapons as yet unimagined by the people of Earth; an invisible sword of fire that destroyed all it touched.


(From 1906 version of War of the Worlds)

Flutter, flutter, went the flag, first to the right, then to the left. It was too far for me to recognise anyone there, but afterwards I learned that Ogilvy, Stent, and Henderson were with others in this attempt at communication. This little group had in its advance dragged inward, so to speak, the circumference of the now almost complete circle of people, and a number of dim black figures followed it at discreet distances.

Suddenly there was a flash of light, and a quantity of luminous greenish smoke came out of the pit in three distinct puffs, which drove up, one after the other, straight into the still air.

This smoke (or flame, perhaps, would be the better word for it) was so bright that the deta blue sky overhead and the hazy stretches of brown common towards Chertsey, set with black pine trees, seemed to darken abruptly as these puffs arose, and to remain the darker after their dispersal. At the same time a faint hissing sound became audible.

Beyond the pit stood the little wedge of people with the white flag at its apex, arrested by these phenomena, a little knot of small vertical black shapes upon the black ground. As the green smoke arose, their faces flashed out pallid green, and faded again as it vanished. Then slowly the hissing passed into a humming, into a long, loud, droning noise. Slowly a humped shape rose out of the pit, and the ghost of a beam of light seemed to flicker out from it.

Forthwith flashes of actual flame, a bright glare leaping from one to another, sprang from the scattered group of men. It was as if some invisible jet impinged upon them and flashed into white flame. It was as if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned to fire.

Then, by the light of their own destruction, I saw them staggering and falling, and their supporters turning to run.

I stood staring, not as yet realising that this was death leaping from man to man in that little distant crowd. All I felt was that it was something very strange. An almost noiseless and blinding flash of light, and a man fell headlong and lay still; and as the unseen shaft of heat passed over them, pine trees burst into fire, and every dry furze bush became with one dull thud a mass of flames. And far away towards Knaphill I saw the flashes of trees and hedges and wooden buildings suddenly set alight.

It was sweeping round swiftly and steadily, this flaming death, this invisible, inevitable sword of heat. I perceived it coming towards me by the flashing bushes it touched, and was too astounded and stupefied to stir. I heard the crackle of fire in the sand pits and the sudden squeal of a horse that was as suddenly stilled. Then it was as if an invisible yet intensely heated finger were drawn through the heather between me and the Martians, and all along a curving line beyond the sand pits the dark ground smoked and crackled. Something fell with a crash far away to the left where the road from Woking station opens out on the common. Forthwith the hissing and humming ceased, and the black, domelike object sank slowly out of sight into the pit.

From The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells.
Published by Unknown in 1898
Additional resources -

Compare to the death-ray from The World Masters (1903) by George Griffiths, 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, the Banning gun from Voyage 13 (1938) by Ray Cummings and the flesh gun from The Computer Connection (1974) by Alfred Bester.

The invention of the laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) probably dates to 1958, when Schawlow and Townes (Bell researcher and consultant, respectively) published a paper called Infrared and Optical Masers.

(Thanks to Simon for this one!)

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from The War of the Worlds
  More Ideas and Technology by H.G. Wells
  Tech news articles related to The War of the Worlds
  Tech news articles related to works by H.G. Wells

Heat Ray-related news articles:
  - Active Denial Technology: Directed Energy Weapons
  - Active Denial System Has Researchers Worried
  - Active Denial System Heat Ray Warming Up
  - Airborne Laser Destroys Missile
  - US Navy Laser Ready For Use
  - HEL TVD Laser System To Be Built By Dynetics Lockheed Martin
  - Carbon Robotics: War Of The Worlds As A Metaphor For Weed Control

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