The Bat-Signal is a crucial part of Batman’s lore. It first premiered in Detective Comics number 60 from 1942, described as a cone of light piercing the dusk of day and etching an eerie symbol against a black cloud, the silhouette of a giant bat. The Bat-Signal was quickly adopted as a staple for Batman stories, even
making significant appearances across movies, TV shows, and video games.
Traditionally, we might think of it as a paging system. A way for Commissioner Gordon or anyone else at the GCPD to get ahold of Batman. When it lights up, Bruce Wayne springs into action. But it represents more than that. In Batman and the Mad Monk, the Caped Crusader gave Gordon a literal pager so the two could communicate covertly.
But Gordon hated this idea so much that he threw the pager off of the roof and demanded a more public system. In The Man Who Laughs, after the horrors the Joker had put the city through, Gordon unveils the Bat-Signal to the people of Gotham, inspiring them to look up once more. Sort of a ray of hope. Which is why it’s so surprising to find out that the inspiration for the Bat-Signal came from a real-life mad scientist who invented a different kind of ray, a death ray.
If you’re not familiar with those REAL Origin videos we take a hero or object in the comic book world, dive into the history books, and find out how and why they were created, uncovering the real world origins. Many people believe to be the inspiration for the Bat-Signal, which involves the man who is probably my favorite person in all of history now, Harry Grindell Matthews. Born in 1880, Harry Grindell Matthews would lead a life of a failed English businessman, and real-life mad scientist. One of his earliest inventions was called the aerophone and allowed for the ground to air communications with airplanes.
The First World War was about to happen, and an innovation like that would sure give an edge to the British Armed Forces. When the Admiralty requested a demonstration of the aerophone, Matthews obliged under one condition, no experts may be present. Matthews never wanted anyone to know how any of his inventions worked. So when on the day of the demonstration Matthews caught a few observers sneakily trying to take apart his machine while jotting down notes, he canceled the whole affair and stormed off. The newspapers backed him up, but the War Office tried to save themselves from humiliation and cover up their
folly by announcing that the aerophone didn’t even work and Matthews was a complete failure of an inventor, a con man.
And this is the theme of Harry Grindell Matthews’ entire life, as we’ll see. It's about Matthews’ the greatest claim to fame. In 1923, Harry Grindell Matthews invented the death ray. A weapon that would go on to find a home in popular sci-fi stories ever since, including, reportedly, Flash Gordon’s ray gun. Not much is known about this device because Matthews didn’t trust anyone enough to spill his secrets. One article written that year though explains that it’s quote
- [Matthews] "a ray, or stream of electric particles that can be developed and shot out for a short distance with unknown possibilities of destructiveness."
Matthews claimed it was capable of many things from exploding gunpowder, melting glass, shutting down engines of cars and motorbikes, destroying vital parts of warships and shocking the crew inside, and burning planes right out of the sky.
Eventually, he would demonstrate his death ray for members of the armed forces. But Matthews, true to form, refused to let them know how his machine worked, only insisting that it did indeed work. Which, admittedly, is a bit fishy, and caused the officials to conclude that Matthews was yet again, just a con man trying to make money from a death ray that didn’t even ray death.
However, as more and more journalists wrote up glowing reports about the invention, the public demanded that the government take Matthews seriously. Especially since Matthews was threatening to sell his invention to France instead. Matthews continued receiving offers to demonstrate his death ray in public, but he kept refusing to show it off or explain how it worked until one day he announced that we, America, apparently bought the death ray in some way that was never made clear. And with that chapter of his life finally over with, Harry Grindell Matthews moved on to America to work with Warner Brothers.
He had previously invented one of the first sounds on film recording processes before the whole death ray thing which, surprise, was also a commercial failure. A handful of years later, Matthews was back in England debuting his latest and greatest invention, the sky projector.
Christmas Eve, 1930, if you were in the area, you’d be able to see a message in the clouds. An image of an angel with the words happy Christmas as well as reportedly an accurate clock face they were all projected into the sky. Not exactly a bat symbol, but we’re getting there. Much like how the Bat-Signal was used to advertise the presence of Batman, Matthews’ sky projector was meant to be used for literal advertisements. One report of it said quote at night it can project advertising on the clouds in color and motion at a distance of several miles. Which we gotta admit, is kind of impressive.
So why don’t we live in a world where companies are buying ad space on clouds? Well, the sky projector was enormous at over 30 feet long and weighing in at around 3,000 pounds. Not exactly easy to fix onto the roof of a police building. This, as well as the nonexistent need for such a device, led to yet another commercial failure for Matthews. But this time, it was the final straw. Harry Grindell Matthews would go bankrupt after his sky projector failed. As it turns out, he loved to live like Bruce Wayne, spending most of his time and money on fancy restaurants and lavish hotels.
In 1938, he left for Wales where he set up a private laboratory. During his final years' locals reported that if you drove by his lab, your motorbike would shut off as if Matthews was using his death ray again just to mess with people. He died of a heart attack in 1941, and almost no one attended his funeral because most of the world was busy with something else that was happening in the 1940s. It was only a few short months later that the Bat-Signal made its triumphant debut in Detective Comics, shining a bright light on the dark and gloomy clouds over Gotham City.
The symbolism is clear, the Caped Crusader can be a beacon of hope in the darkness, but can also represent the idea that Batman needs the darkness for his mission. I mean, after all, there’s not much point in shining a light into the bright, day-lit sky. If Bruce Wayne intends for Batman to be a metaphorical symbol, the Bat-Signal is the literal symbol that advertises to superstitious and cowardly criminals as well as civilians who long for justice that the Dark Knight is out there as the protector of Gotham City.
Sadly, Harry Grindell Matthews never got to see the iconic imagery his sky projector inspired. He never got to know the influence it had. No matter what Batman continuity you find yourself in, there will always be some form of Bat-Signal. Created by tying a mob boss to a floodlight, or crudely painted on a reflective surface, or any other origin, the Bat-Signal persists. It’s inevitable, and that inevitability is reassuring. In a city where killer clowns and evil psychopaths roam the streets invoking terror and chaos, citizens of Gotham can look up and see a persevering symbol that someone is out there watching over them. If only Harry could see it.