Today, Röntgen's rays. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
I love one line from the musical Fantastiks.
The narrator starts the story, saying, "You wonder how these things begin."
Then he spins a yarn much larger than the real lives of his characters.
He reminds us that most things have two beginnings -- the cold factual sequence,
and the story woven around the facts.
Both beginnings are important: the first, because truth unadorned keeps us honest;
the other because how we tell what happened, inaccurate though it might be, very
often reveals the truth about us who embrace the story.
Now, a strange case where the two versions almost converged: On November 8, 1895,
Röntgen was working in Strasburg with a Crookes tube. He built a cardboard light
seal around it and turned it on. He'd meant to activate a fluorescent screen with
it, but found he was illuminating a nearby bench through the cardboard.
Something similar had been done by people in Pennsylvania two years before, but they
didn't realize what they had. Röntgen did. He worked like a demon to get a paper
out in late December. Since he didn't know what to call the illumination, he titled
it, On a New Kind of X-Rays.
Three months later, the April copy of McClure's Magazine included an article:
The New Marvel in Photography.
In all the history of scientific discovery [it says] there has never been
[so] dramatic an effect wrought on the scientific centres ... as has followed,
in the past four weeks, upon an announcement [by] William Conrad Röntgen [who]
discovered a new kind of light, which penetrated and photographed through everything.
And the legend takes shape. The author goes on to suggest that, by the time this
article appears, American labs and lecture halls will buzz with, a
"contagious arousal of interest over a discovery so strange that its importance cannot be measured [or] its utility even prophesied."
Röntgen struggled to keep his eye on his work in a world delirious with its new X-Rays.
He didn't understand the rays, or even know if they were a form of electricity.
"I am not a prophet," he cried, "I am opposed to prophesying. I pursue my investigations."
But everyone else went quite mad with X-Rays. They'd already been used to locate foreign
objects in ailing bodies and to identify tuberculosis. Edison wanted to X-Ray the human brain.
Surely there could be no limit to their efficacy.
Röntgen insisted on the term X-Rays instead of Röntgen rays. But, in 2004,
the new element Röntgenium was named after him. He also got the first physics
Nobel Prize for his discovery. And, it turns out, he had family in Iowa and wanted to move
to America. He would've accepted a job at Columbia University if WW-I hadn't begun.
He died of cancer at 78, but probably not from his experiments. He was that rare X-Ray
pioneer who shielded himself.
But that was Röntgen, level-headed in the face of all the hoopla -- someone who steadfastly
struggled to keep the sane facts of his own life from being rendered on the gaudy canvas of legend.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
H. J. W. Dam, The New Marvel in Photography. McClure's Magazine, Vol. VI,
No. 5, Apr., 1896, pp. 401-415. See also following Dam's article in that issue,
C. Moffett, The Röntgen Rays in America, pp. 415-420. The text only (no images)
of these articles may be get from Project Gutenberg:
The image above and the two below are from the McClure's article.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.