War Theory: A Technical Analysis of War of the Worlds [Part 1]

By Daniel Duffy 02 May 2017 4

"No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. …Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment." – War of the Worlds

Part I – Reverse Engineering the Martian War Machine – The Heat Ray and HMS Thunder Child 

This article is a “history” of H.G. Wells classic science fiction novel, “The War of the Worlds”, as if it actually happened, complete with technological assessments, logistical evaluations and strategic analyses. Naturally, the first subject will be prominent given the vast technological superiority of the invading Martians. 

One incident in particular from the book can serve as the basis for this technical analysis: the encounter between three Martian war machines and HMS Thunder Child as described in book one, chapter seventeen. The battle, which is depicted as taking place off the mouth of the River Blackwater in Essex, was the only known incident in the war where Humans defeated the Martians. When the Martians arrive at the coastline, HMS Thunder Child is laying offshore with other ironclads of the Royal Navy escorting shiploads of refugees fleeing the Martians. The Martians wade out into the ocean in pursuit of the refugee fleet. 

Thunder Child

Defending the refugees, HMS Thunder Child steams directly at the three Martian tripods now wading out into the offshore waters. Initially confused as to what the craft could be, the Martians at first attack it with a canister of poisonous black gas. The canister bounces harmlessly off Thunder Child’s hull as it continues its advance. The Martians then retreat shoreward and higher ground to gain firing advantage with their heat rays. A blast from the heat ray of the first Martian tripod penetrates the ship’s hull but fails to damage the ship’s steering gear or engine. HMS Thunder Child then rams the first Martian which crumples and collapses. HMS Thunder Child fires its guns, but does not score any hits (though a shell almost hits a fellow steamer). It continues to steam towards the second Martian, though its interior is now on fire. The second Martian fires its heat ray into the heart of Thunder Child just before impact. Thunder Child then explodes into flaming wreckage. The explosion staggers the Martian and the ship’s impetus allows the now dead Thunder Child to ram the Martian full on, destroying the second Martian. The clouds of steam generated by the heat ray obscure what happens next. When the clouds clear, neither Thunder Child nor the third Martian can be seen as the Royal Navy ironclads take up guard positons shoreward of the refugee fleet. 

HMS Thunder Child was an ironclad torpedo ram, based on the very real HMS Polyphemus. This was the only ship of this class commissioned by the Royal Navy (1882, two other ships were ordered but never built). An ironclad torpedo ram such as HMS Polyphemus was a rather odd hybrid vessel whose tactical use on the open sea was never quite figured out by the admiralty. Unlike HMS Thunder Child, it had no deck guns, relying on five torpedo tubes and 18 torpedoes with a maximum range of 600 yards. Its class of ship, and the tactic of ramming itself, was soon rendered obsolete by the introduction of quick traversing and quick fire guns (ramming only proved effective against ships already dead in the water, in any case). Its design specifications and construction plans describe its steel plate armor as “deck 3 inches’ compound armor, hatch coamings 4 inches, conning tower 8 inches”. The Martian heat ray is described as penetrating this like a “white hot poker through paper”. 


So, what can this information tell us about the Martian heat ray? 

Begin first with metallurgy. Carbon steel has a temperature of vaporization (the temperature at which steel boils) of approximately 3000 degrees C. By comparison, the surface of the sun is approximately 5,500 degrees C. Carbon steel also has a specific heat value (the amount of energy needed to raise one kilogram of steel by one degree C) of 502.4 Joules / (kg * deg C). 

Assuming the heat ray was of a relatively large diameter (up to a 1 foot - based on description of the heat ray’s large camera-like projector and its effects on troops in the field) it would have to vaporize 905 cubic inches of carbon steel to punch through its thickest 8" armor plating. This is equivalent to 257 lbs of steel or 116.6 kg. 

(Note: I ask the reader’s forgiveness for switching back and forth between English and Metric units. Wherever possible I will use Metric, but both the values and characteristics of a Royal Navy ship of the late 19th century are given in English as are some comparative characteristics of modern American military vehicles). 

To reach this vaporization point, the heat ray would have to deliver 175 million joules = [502.4 Joules / (kg * deg C)] * 116.6 Kg * 3000 deg C. Assuming vaporization can occur in one second or less (“white hot poker through paper”), this is equivalent to 175 megawatts minimum. So, we can assume that a Martian tripod was equipped with an approximately 200 MW power plant. 

war of the worlds remembrance by lonesome crow d3ge1pf

Assuming the Martians did not use any exotic physics, this puts the Martian tripod's power plant in the range of currently available small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs), which are classified as reactors that generate 10 MW to 300 MW. The dimensions of these reactors vary with design and output, with some requiring housing as small as 6m x 6m x 30m. Assuming continued advances in reactor design, even smaller and more compact reactors will soon be available. Certainly, it is feasible for such an advanced compact reactor to fit in the cowling at the top of a Martian tripod (described as being 10 stories high with a cowling described as being the size of a small house or large boiler on top of its three legs). We can further assume that the tripods are not powered by extreme power sources like fusion or anti-matter. A tokamak fusion reactor may be more efficient than a fission reactor, but its need for confining magnetic fields and associated super structure makes it impractically large compared to a compact SMR whose power output would be more than sufficient. 

But how would the Martians fair against the mightiest Human war machine of the early 20th century, the Dreadnaught-class battle ships with their massive (by Human standards) fire power and heavy steel armor? I’m cheating here just a bit since the book was published in 1898 and HMS Dreadnought wasn’t commissioned until 1906. Then again, though Wells never gives the precise year of the Martian invasion, it was sometime “early in the 20th century”. We can be assumed the Martian invasion to have taken place in the first decade of the 20th century just as the Dreadnought-class warships were coming on line.

hms dreadnought3

Unfortunately, HMS Dreadnaught had “only” 11-inch thick steel plate armor. It would have lasted no longer against the Martian heat ray than HMS Thunder Child. Its 12-inch guns on the other hand had a maximum range of 16,450 yards (9.3 miles or almost 15 km). This gives HMS Dreadnaught the chance to fire one or more broadsides against the Martians. However, at an elevation of approximately 30 meters (10 stories), the horizon to a Martian observer would extend 19.6 km (12.2 miles). Again, the unfortunate HMS Dreadnaught could not hide beyond the horizon out of reach of a line of sight weapon like the Martian heat ray. But being a larger ship firing at a greater distance, HMS Dreadnaught could conceivably take out several Martian tripods before its demise. 

Fast forward a century, and how does the Martian heat ray compare to the battlefield lasers now entering service? The ATHENA laser system deployed by the US Army in 2015 utilized a 30-kW laser capable of setting thin skinned vehicles like trucks on fire or shooting down a drone at a range of one mile. The newer THEL systems have twice the power. Lasers installed on US Navy destroyers have power ranging up to 150 kW. The US Air Force AC-130 aircraft used in an anti-missile role are also equipped with lasers in the 150-kW power range. None of these weapon is in the same class as the 200 MW Martian heat ray. The only comparable lasers are free electron lasers under development with power estimated in the 1 MW range or the theoretical nuclear pulse powered satellite lasers proposed for President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, SDI (aka “Star Wars”).


Assuming that the Martians had fire control and target acquisition technology at least as advanced as our own, their heat ray could also be easily employed in a similar anti-projectile role (making the protective “force fields” shown in both “War of the Worlds” movies unnecessary). The energy of the heat ray would simply trigger any explosive shell or explode the propellant of any missile fired at them, as well as incinerate any helicopters, drones or aircraft in their line of sight. Not even the 350 mm (almost 12 inches) thick depleted uranium mesh-reinforced composite armor of the M-1 Abrams tank would provide a significant defense. 

Odds are, the Martians tripods and their heat rays from over 100 years ago, would still be able to dominate even a modern battlefield, inflicting death and destruction with relative impunity.

Join us next week for even more optimism in Part 2 as we look at how the Martian walkers fair on different terrain types, and how this would affect the battle tactics of both sides.



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