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Two Words: Death Ray
Charged Particle Beams

A charged particle beam (CPB) is a directed-energy weapon that fires pulses of charged particles to heat and potentially explode a target. Theoretically, such a weapon could reach a target almost instantly and at enormous range, delivering lethal doses of energy in seconds or less. However, the technical challenges involved in building a beam like this -- especially one capable of firing in the atmosphere -- remain daunting [source: Roberds].

Oh, we're sorry, did we say "death ray"? We meant "peace beam that can knock airplanes out of the sky hundreds of miles away and give infantry a very, very bad day."

Amid the gathering clouds of World War II, Tesla announced that he had conceived a new "peace beam" weapon capable of ending war forever. He saw his device, which we now know as a charged particle beam, as a kind of "Chinese wall," an anti-war device that would safeguard national borders. The papers took a different view: "TESLA, AT 78, BARES NEW 'DEATH BEAM'" blared The New York Times' front page on July 11, 1934.

The possibility of a world power developing a particle beam haunted the Cold War, especially after some of Tesla's papers went missing following his death [sources: Cheney and Uth; Jonnes; PBS; PBS].

CPBs were made famous by Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, program, but the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was investigating them as early as 1958 [source: Roberds].

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