Victorian London - Science and Technology - X-rays

Tues. 14 April. Old Doctor Kiallmark was here to-day & showed us the first private photograph I have seen by these wonderful "Röntgen rays".  A woman had squeezed a needle right into the palm of her hand. The hand was photographed, the rays hone through the flesh & only put in the bones, & there, sure enough, was the needle with the point broken off lying close to one of the bones. As old Dr. Kiallmark said, he might have been grubbing after that needle with a probe for six months & never had found it ...

Mary, Lady Monkswell, Diary, 1896


SCIENCE advances by bringing into view facts and phenomena previously unknown. Galileo turns his simple telescope towards the heavens, and lo! thousands of stars beyond the grasp of the unaided vision are revealed; the microscope is invented, and by its aid an unseen universe, the inhabitants of which are far more numerous than the stars in heaven, is made known. In neither case were new worlds or beings created, the extension of knowledge being but a consequence of the improved powers of seeing. The recent development of photography, associated with the name of Professor Röntgen, of Marburg University, exemplifies this idea. It has been discovered that a kind of light-rays - if the term be not a misnomer - can be produced which will pass through opaque substances, such as wood and aluminium, more easily than through glass, and that these rays can produce an effect upon a sensitised surface such as that of a photographic plate. Further, the rays will pass through flesh more easily than through bone, so that if a hand is held in front of a source emitting them, the bones of the hand can be seen distinctly in the shadow thrown. The facts seem so simple that it is difficult to believe that they have only been acquired after many years of patient work. The manner in which the knowledge has been obtained is, however, so typical of scientific method that a sketch of the history of the investigations which have led up to it cannot but prove interesting. 
    It has been known for many years that when an electric discharge is caused to take place through a sealed glass tube or bulb containing only extremely rarefied air, the tube becomes filled with a beautiful luminosity. Mr. W. Crookes, F.R.S., made a number of experiments with vacuum-tubes of this kind after reducing the air in them to the highest degree of rarefaction. He found that electrified particles seemed to be shot out from one of the two slips of metal sealed into the tube for connection with the machine which produced the electricity. Diamonds, rubies, and other substances, when placed in the tube so that these particles or rays fell upon them, became phosphorescent, and emitted a shimmering light. And if a pattern was cut out of a sheet of mica and placed in the path of the rays, it stopped them, the result being that a dark shadow of the pattern was seen at the end of the tube opposite that from which they were projected, while all around the shadow was phosphorescent light. Mr. Crookes regards the production of these effects as due to an extremely attenuated form of gaseous matter - radiant matter, he calls it - projected from one of the electric terminals sealed into the vacuum-tube; but it is not so important in this place to explain the phenomenon as to state its character. The late Professor Hertz showed that the rays referred to would pass through thin sheets of certain metals; hence, a pattern cut out of one of these metals, and placed in a vacuum-tube in the same way as the mica pattern, produced no shadow, for, though opaque to light, they were transparent to Crookes' rays. This was a decided step in advance, and the next was taken by Professor Lénard, about two years ago, who, by using a vacuum tube having an aluminium end or window, was able to pass the rays out into the air, without reducing their properties of producing phosphorescence. He further showed that the rays thus set free from their bondage in a vacuum were capable of recording their existence upon a photographic plate. Here, then, lies the whole germ of the recent development of photography. Evidently all that was necessary to be done in order to utilise the knowledge was to elaborate the experiments by placing various substances in the path of the rays and catching their shadows upon a sensitised plate. This is what Professor Röntgen has done, but he has found that the aluminium window is unnecessary; for the rays he uses escape through glass.
    A full translation of the paper in which Professor Rontgen states the results of his observations is given in " Nature" of January 23. It is instructive to note some of the experiments there described. A vacuum-tube, rendered luminous by the electric discharge, was surrounded by a shield of black paper in a completely darkened room. A piece of paper, having one side covered with a phosphorescent substance, was brought into the neighbourhood of the tube, and found to become brilliantly luminous, in spite of the fact that the light of the vacuum-tube was covered up. This proved beyond doubt that certain rays can pass through paper, and still possess the ability to produce phosphorescence. A book of 1,000 pages did not prevent this action, nor did two packs of cards, thick blocks of wood, or ebonite, while a sheet of aluminium nearly an inch thick only reduced the effect. Plates of copper, silver, lead, gold, and platinum permitted the rays to pass, but only when they were thin. And if a hand was held between the vacuum-tube and the phosphorescent screen, the shadow showed the bones darkly, with only faint outlines of the surrounding flesh, the reason being that the bones are almost opaque to the active rays, while the flesh is transparent to them. By substituting a sensitive plate for the phosphorescent screen, a photograph of four fingers of a living human hand, having a ring upon the third finger, was produced, and is shown in fig. 2.
    Professor Röntgen has produced many electric shadows, or shadowgraphs, in the same way, by taking advantage of the fact that different substances allow the new rays to pass through them with different facilities. He has photographed wire wound around a bobbin, the wire stopping the rays while the wood of the bobbin was permeable to them. A set of metal weights in a wooden box, when placed in the path of the rays, produced a picture of the weights alone; and a compass card and magnetic needle, completely enc1osed in a case, was photographed with the result shown in fig. 3. Other objects have been similarly experimented upon, the object in each case being between the electrically excited vacuum tube and the photographic plate. 
    Mr. A. A. C. Swinton, a well-known electrical enginee r in London, has, by adopting precisely similar methods, obtained a number of the new photographs. One of his pictures is reproduced  in fig.1. The difference between the character of this picture of a living human hand and the one obtained by Professor Röntgen, indicates a slight difference of penetrative power of the rays utilised by the two experimenters. Mr. Swinton has photographed coins within a purse, a razor inside its case, the bones in a living frog, and a calico pocket and contents behind a sheet of aluminium. His observations show that while most thick metal sheets appear to be entirely opaque to the radiations, aluminium is relatively transparent. Ebonite, carbon, wood, leather, and slate are all very transparent, while, on the other hand, glass is very opaque. This indicates that a vacuum-tube made of aluminium would allow many more of the rays to pass through it than a glass vacuum-tube does, and therefore would lead to even better results than those hitherto obtained.
    Such, then, are the facts so far available, but considerable additions will soon be made to them, for the properties of the new rays are being investigated in many physical laboratories. Into the t heoretical side of the question this is not the place to enter, nor has the time come when anything definite can be said upon the subject. Suffice it to state that some physicists hold that Crookes' radiant matter is responsible for the effects; while others regard them as due to extremely minute wave-motions in the ether which men of science believe exists everywhere and permeates everything. It is well known that invisible rays exist capable of affecting photographic plates, but powerless to produce an impression upon the human retina, and one naturally inclines to the idea that the radiations which produce Professor Röntgen's effects are similar to them. It may be thought that such rays could hardly pass through opaque substances, but the apparent difficulty is removed if it is assumed that every solid substance is really made up of molecules floating in hypothetical ether. Accepting the theory that light is due to wave-motion in this ether, why should not such motion be transmitted through the ether which permeates opaque substances like wood and metal, just as well as through the ether which permeates glass? Glass allows ether-waves to come through it which affect our light sense; it happens to stop certain other waves, but there are many reasons for believing that these waves can traverse other materials. But, whatever decision may ultimately be arrived at as to the cause of the phenomena lately brought into prominence, the scientific world is furnished with food for reflection for some time to come.
    As to the possibilities of the new photography, it will be consoling to most people to know that the ubiquitous amateur photographer will not be able to obtain snap-shots of their skeletons as they walk along the street. Only by means of the radiations obtained electrically in the manner described have the new shadowgraphs yet been made. In surgery, the method should undoubtedly prove useful, for, as will be manifest from the accompanying illustrations of human hands, slight deformations of bones, or the nature of a fracture, could easily be located by means of such pictures. Already the process has been utilised to show the position of a small revolver bullet in a man's hand; to point out the destroyed parts in a diseased thigh-bone, and to photograph a stone in the bladder of a living person ; and there is every reason to believe that blow-holes and flaws concealed in the interior of metal structures could be revealed by it. We may, therefore, confidently expect, now that the applications of the method have been indicated, that full advantage will be taken of them.

R. A. GREGORY, article in The Leisure Hour, 1896 

Tinfoil-lined Envelopes. - It is stated that tinfoil is impenetrable to the X-rays. The contents of a sealed letter have been photographed in fifteen seconds by the Röntgen rays. Few substances now afford protection from being visible, whether for good or evil purposes. If tinfoil is one of the few, the "Stationery Trade Journal" suggests that envelopes lined with tinfoil may become a profitable branch of business for stationers.

article in The Leisure Hour, 1896

THE RONTGEN X RAYS – St. JAMES’S-HALL. – PRACTICAL DEMONSTRATIONS of the X RAYS (Rontgen’s Marvellous New Light Discovery) DAILY at 2.30 and 4.0 by T.C.HEPWORTH, F.C.S., F.R.P.S., Admission, 2s. 6d. Schools and parties at reduced terms by arrangement. Mr. Hepworth’s entertainment includes illustrations by the aid of the new Electric Lantern of the wonders of Up to Date Photography. St. James’s-hall, Piccadilly entrance. Mr. Hepworth will photograph the hand of any of the audience. Engagements booked for evening at homes at Tree’sTicket Office, St. James’s-hall.

advertisement from The Times, 1896

At WEST HAM, JOHN JOLLY, 46, Lansdowne-road, East Ham, a builder was charge, on remand, with shooting Constable George Hill, 146 K, and with attempting to shoot Constable Edward Bateman, 697 K, with intent to murder them on January 25, outside the Stratford Police-court. . . . The circumstances have been reported. Hill, after being shot, was put under chloroform with the object of tracing the bulet, which, however, was not discovered till the Rontgen rays were employed. It was then seen to be in a cavity of the jaw, and up to the present it has not been considered advisable to attempt to remove it.

The Times, 1898

RONTGEN RAYS CASE AT HASTINGS. The Hastings coroner yesterday resumed the inquiry into the circumstances attending the death of Catherine Fanny Wilson, widow. Evidence was given to the effect that the deceased woman fractured her thigh when bicycle riding. On one occasion, the Rontgen rays were applied to the thigh for two hours to locate the fracture, and on the second occasion for two hours and 20 minutes. The woman wrote, a month before she died, a letter in which she alleged that her blood rested upon the two men – the medical man and photographer – who were the cause of all her suffering. Dr. Roberts said he considered the wound attributable to the Rontgen rays. In his opinion the cause of death was exhaustion from the effects of a shock caused by the fracture of the thigh and the Rontgen rays. Dr. Harry Mansell, who ordered the application of the rays, denied the allegation as to the time occupied. The jury ultimately found a verdict of “Death from shock and exhaustion,” and stated that no blame was attached to the doctor or photographer.

The Times,1900