It was Monday, January 23, 1928 on Court Street in Cincinnati. Three Willis automobiles rumbled around the Courthouse Square, flashing their lights, honking their horns, starting and stopping, shutting off and restarting their engines, turning this way and that. Not one of the three cars had a human in the driver’s seat. All were controlled by a wooden crate mounted on the running board, receiving radio signals from a “Wireless Wizard” manipulating a small radio transmitter. According to the Cincinnati Post:
“The wizard would fling a radio spark from his toylike transmitter. There would be a responsive click in the wireless apparatus on the auto. The wheels would move in any direction.”
The Wireless Wizard was a young man named Maurice J. Francill from Toledo, Ohio. Francill arrived in Cincinnati under the auspices of the Post to demonstrate the power of radio to transform modern life. Francill spent a week in town, not only driving automobiles in circles, but sending a conductorless streetcar eight blocks up Sycamore Street. Each evening, he amazed crowds at the local Wurlitzer shop on Fourth Street:
“In addition to playing all manner of automatic music instruments by remote control, he will make a radio broadcast phonograph record and play it back to his audience in the flash of a moment. He also will offer light and sound wave experiments on the music store program.”
While wowing the crowds by demonstrating his radio-control box, Francill opined about the future of American life, once radio had saturated the nation’s infrastructure.
“The wizard, Francill, says that someday every woman will carry a wireless dual-phone in her handbag – that she not only can talk over it with the maid at home, but that she can see through it exactly what is taking place there.”
Francill predicted that every household appliance will one day be operated by radio, with vacuum sweepers operated at the touch of a button and basement laundry machines controlled from the lady’s boudoir. (Francill was less than forthcoming about how the dirty clothes would find their way to the laundry and how the clean clothes would return to the closet, but who is quibbling?)
In Cincinnati, Francill was a decided sensation. Over the course of his six-day visit to the Queen City, he presented 18 driverless automobile exhibitions, a sold-out demonstration of radio-controlled appliances at Keith’s Theater and inspirational visits to local high schools.
On top of whatever the Post paid him for this week-long residency, Francill earned some financial icing by endorsing local products. The Veazey-Miller Willis dealership on Gilbert Avenue provided the Willis automobiles for his experiments, with full tanks of Caldwell & Taylor’s “Original Benzol Gas,” lubricated with Pennzoil products and relying on Prest-O-Lite batteries. The Electric Shop contributed appliances for use on stage, and Wurlitzer touted Francill’s approval of the company’s home entertainment consoles.
Who was this “Wireless Wizard” and where did he come from? Although identified as an engineer, none of the newspapers suggested he had actually studied engineering anywhere. Records for anyone named Maurice J. Francill are sparse and sometimes contradictory.
That’s because Maurice J. Francill was the stage name of a man named Francis Cowgill, born in Marion, Ohio around 1896. Cowgill worked for a time in the factories around his hometown. The 1920 census records him as a foreman and inspector at an automobile factory. In 1918 the Marion Star announced that Francis Cowgill was “putting Marion on the map” by designing weaponry for the United States Navy. In particular, the newspaper reported that Cowgill had developed contact mines for the Navy that were “in actual use,” and was now pitching two types of aerial bombs to the U.S. War Department.
After the war, Cowgill launched a career in show business as a one-man vaudeville act juggling and wire-walking. He began adding magic tricks to his repertoire and started tinkering with remote control devices to enliven his show. That’s when he created the “Francill” name by chopping off the end of his first name and the beginning of his surname and splicing them together. Pretty soon the radio component of his act became the centerpiece and he was off on a decade of remote-control exhibitions—milking cows, baking bread, operating a laundry and running entire factories in addition to running driverless autos through their paces.
As World War II loomed, Maurice/Francis went back to his earlier career in creating armaments and created his electronic triumph—a Death Ray. According to the Cincinnati Post [2 March 1940], Francill offered his homicidal device to Ohio Governor John W. Bricker as a quicker, more humane, method of execution than the electric chair, but state law mandated the chair in Ohio. Francill claimed that his Death Ray had killed rats in preliminary tests.
Twenty-two years later, Cowgill was still trying to sell his Death Ray and told the Columbus Dispatch [29 April 1962] that, if he didn’t build one, somebody else would, Cowgill claimed “four or five others in this country” were working on one.
“It’s quite possible that the ray could operate off of a couple of flash-light batteries.”
Cowgill told Dispatch reporter Dan Clancy that the Death Ray he envisioned could do much more than simply kill people. It could cut down the Golden Gate Bridge, for example.
“You could just slice it off at each end and take another cut up the middle for good measure.”
Cowgill told Clancy that his Death Ray worked by disrupting the ability of hemoglobin to carry oxygen. Rats struck by the Death Ray fell paralyzed and then died. Cowgill claimed he never killed any people with his Death Ray, but confessed he’d thought of doing so.
The man born Francis Cowgill died in 1974 and is buried as Maurice J. Francill in Marion Cemetery. He appeared in court to fight a Marion traffic ticket as Francill in 1953, suggesting he had legally changed his name. However, the Ohio Bar Association sued Francis Cowgill in 1970 under his birth name for practicing law—advising inventors about patent regulations—without a license, so maybe he hadn’t.
Adding to the mystery is the outcome of his research on a Death Ray? Do plans exist? Was a prototype constructed? Were any more rats sacrificed? The answers are out there somewhere.