Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/April 1896/The X Rays

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1232350Popular Science Monthly Volume 48 April 1896 — The X Rays1896John Trowbridge (1843-1923)




SINCE the publication of Hertz's paper on the penetration of thin sheets of metal, notably aluminum, by the cathode rays, interest in the remarkable phenomena investigated first by Prof. Crookes has been reawakened to a marked degree; and most physicists during the past five years have regarded the subject of cathode rays as the most important one in electricity. In 1893 Lenard succeeded, by means of a Crookes tube provided with a small aluminum window, in detecting the cathode rays outside the tube in the air space of an ordinary room. He used paper disks covered with a very fluorescent substance, which became luminous when the cathode rays struck them; and he also succeeded in showing photographic effects of the rays. Now Röntgen, by the use of ordinary dry plates and without the use of an aluminum window, has taken photographs through wood and through the human hand by means of what he terms the X rays, which he supposes are excited either in the glass walls of the Crookes tube or in the media outside the tube by means of the cathode rays.

We see, therefore, that the literature of the subject must be sought in the papers of Crookes, Hertz, Lenard, and Röntgen; and the interest in the mysterious manifestations of these invisible rays is twofold: first, in regard to the possible application of the phenomena to surgery, since the rays show a specific absorption, passing more easily through the flesh than through bones or glass or metallic particles; and, secondly, in relation to the questions whether we are dealing here with radiant matter shot forth from the negative pole or cathode or with longitudinal waves of electricity.

Let us first examine the possibility of the practical application of the cathode photography to surgery. The term cathode is applied to the zinc pole or negative pole of an ordinary battery. It is that terminal of an electrical machine which glows least in the dark when the machine is excited. It is the shortest carbon in the ordinary street electric lamp. The positive carbon or anode burns away twice as fast as the negative carbon or cathode. If the electric light is formed in a high vacuum by means of a great electro-motive force, we no longer have a voltaic arc or a spark; instead of this the exhausted vessel is filled with a feeble luminosity, and a beam of bluish rays is seen to stream from the negative terminal or cathode. When these rays strike the glass walls of the vessel they excite a strong fluorescence. If the glass contains an oxide of uranium this fluorescence is yellow; if it contains an oxide of copper it is green. Röntgen supposes that this fluorescence excited by the cathode rays is connected in some way with the formation of what he terms the X rays. Now, a photograph of the bones in the hand, for instance, can be obtained by placing a sensitive plate in an ordinary photographic plate-holder. Resting the hand on the undrawn slide in the daylight, with the palm of the hand outward and toward the cathode, and about six inches away from it, the bones of the hand are thus brought in the nearest possible position to the sensitive plate. At the time of the present writing, the breast and the abdomen of the human body present too great thickness for successful photographs, and the attempts to obtain representations of the cavity in which the brain is situated have been failures, since the rays do not show any marked difference in fleshy tissues. Nothing can be obtained in these attempts to photograph the brain but a contour of the cavity in which it is situated, and possibly a shadowy representation of a bullet which might be imbedded in the head. The method of obtaining a successful photograph of the hand shows the present limitations of the method. In order to obtain a fairly sharp shadow of a bone or of a shot, it should not be more than an inch away from the sensitive plate. The term shadow, however, is somewhat misleading. The photograph of the hand by the X rays is entirely different from one produced by resting the hand in a similar position to that above described against an uncovered sensitive plate in a dark room and then lighting a match. By the last method we should obtain a true shadow of the hand, the flesh would throw as dense a shadow as the bones, and the latter could

Crookes Tubes

not be detected in the general blackness. In the cathode photograph, on the other hand, a difference in absorptive power is shown: the flesh looks like a hazy film around the skeleton, and even the medulla cavities can be made out, and the varying thickness of the bones is more or less shown. This specific absorption is of great scientific interest as well as of practical importance.

Now, these X rays will penetrate several inches of wood, with varying amount of absorption, but they are almost entirely cut off by glass as thick as a window pane. They pass through thin layers of aluminum, even layers as thick as a silver ten-cent piece, while the silver coin almost entirely intercepts them.

It therefore immediately occurs to one. Why not return to Lenard's tube, provide a Crookes tube with an aluminum window, and thus save the great absorption of the glass walls of the tube? There are certain practical difficulties in the way. The aluminum must be very thin. Lenard used a window which was about one eight-thousandth of an inch thick, and it was necessarily very small, in order to stand the atmospheric pressure. An aluminum window one eighth of an inch thick, or as thick as a ten-cent piece, would absorb nearly as much as the glass walls of the present forms of Crookes tubes, which are not more than one sixtieth of an inch thick. Glass vessels seem at present to be more practical than any composite form, in which aluminum is glued to a glass-supporting vessel: first, because it can be blown very thin, and in a shape strong enough to withstand the atmospheric pressure; secondly, because the occluded air can be more effectively driven off the inner walls of the vessels by heating it while it is being exhausted than it can be expelled from a vessel of any other material.

To obtain successful photographs, the exhaustion of the air must be pushed to a high degree; and this is also interesting from the scientific point of view. Moreover, a high electro-motive force is necessary. Pictures can be taken in less than one minute of the skeleton of the human hand by means of high vacua tubes excited by high electro-motive force. Even in this bare recital of the present limits of the application of the X rays to photography, we perceive great possibilities in the application of the method to the surgery of the human extremities. There is no doubt that small foreign bodies, like shot and pieces of glass, can be detected in the fleshy tissues of the hand. Certain accessible regions of the body, like the mouth, can possibly be examined by placing a sensitive film inside the mouth and the cathode outside of the cheek; and it does not seem improbable that a suitable cathode vessel can be inserted into certain abdominal regions and a photograph be obtained by placing a sensitive plate on the outside of the body. By employing two cathodes, at the proper distance apart, stereoscopic representations of the bones can be obtained, and an estimate formed of the position of foreign bodies.

Let us now turn to some of the interesting scientific questions

which have arisen in regard to this apparently new manifestation of the cathode rays. In the first place, they are apparently not refracted by paraffine, vulcanite, or wood, or by any substance which is penetrated by them. To test this, I employed a double-convex lens of wood and also a double-concave lens of the same material. I placed two copper rings in the concavity of the double-concave lens of wood, and also a similar copper ring outside the lens at the same height from the sensitive plate, as one of the rings which rested on the wood of the lens. I also placed a ring on the double-convex lens, and employed two cathodes to obtain two shadows from different positions. The thickness of the wooden lenses varied from half an inch to three quarters of an inch. The images obtained through the wood of the lenses were not distorted or changed in figure in any way by the wood, and therefore no refraction could be observed by this method. On account of the quick diffusibility of the rays, no accurate method of determining a possible index of refraction seems possible. If the photographic effect is due to longitudinal waves in the ether, and if these waves travel with great velocity, no refraction would probably be observed. Maxwell's electro-magnetic theory of light supposes that only transverse waves are set up in the ether, and no longitudinal waves exist. On the other hand, Helmholtz's electro-magnetic theory of light postulates longitudinal waves as well as transverse waves. The longitudinal waves travel with an infinite velocity. Is it therefore possible that the X waves are the longitudinal waves of Helmholtz's theory? Our apparent inability to refract the rays lends color to this hypothesis. Röntgen, in the preliminary account of his experiments, intimates that the phenomena may be due to longitudinal waves, and in a late article in the Annalen der Physik und Chemie, by Jaumann, entitled Longitudinal Light, Maxwell's electro-magnetic equations are modified so as to embrace the phenomenon of cathode rays; and the author shows that even Maxwell's theory can, under certain conditions, give a longitudinal wave.

The cathode rays can be deflected by a magnet, and it is said that the X rays can not. It must be borne in mind, however, that when the cathode rays are widely divergent it is difficult to deflect them by a magnet; the stream density, so to speak, is too feeble. The X rays, therefore, may be only cathode rays modified by passing through the glass vessel; and the stream of rays may be of too feeble a character to be influenced by a magnet that is, they may be still cathode rays. The want of refractive power and the want of magnetic action have not been fully established. Crookes early showed that two cathode beams sent out from two cathodes placed beside each other, repelled each other, as if they consisted of streams of negatively electrified molecules. If the two beams were of the nature of electrical currents, they ought, being of the same sign, to attract each other. This experiment seems to point to an electrostatic nature of the cathode rays. The electrostatic lines of force go out from a charged conductor at right angles to the surface of the conductor. I have had constructed a Crookes tube with two parallel terminals of aluminum. The fluorescence in the walls of the vessel, when it was exhausted, showed that the cathode rays went out from every element of the cathode at right angles to it. By bending it into an arc of a circle the cathode beams traveled over the surface of the vessel, forming zones of light the centers of which were in the bent wire. Is it not possible that by the electrostatic action the few molecules of air left in the high vacua are shot off with great velocity and bombard the walls of the vessel, thus giving rise to the fluorescent light, and also giving rise to an agitation of the molecules of matter outside the vessel? This may be called the molecular view of the phenomenon. I confess it is difficult to see why the molecular agitation is stopped by a thin sheet of glass and not by an inch of wood. It is certain that a few molecules must be left in the high vacua, for the cathode rays can not be formed in a perfect vacuum.

It is also true that it is useless to attempt to obtain photographs in any reasonable time from tubes which do not show a strongly marked cathode beam, or from tubes which on reversing the electric current through them do not show a marked difference between the light at the cathode and that at the anode. In poorly exhausted tubes one can perceive a faint appearance of a cathode beam, which is lost at a short distance from the cathode, as if the molecules which are shot off meet with such a crowd of more slowly moving ones that their energy is soon lost, and the cathode beam is quickly diffused like a beam of sunlight passing into milk and water. Thus the beam of cathode or X rays emerging from the glass vessel into the air is soon no longer conical in form. The sides of the cone of rays are no longer straight; they are curved, as if the generatrix of the cone were a curved line instead of a straight line, and the beam is soon lost in a turbid medium. One can imagine a stream of projectiles being similarly dispersed in striving to pass into a region of sluggishly moving shot. This molecular view of the phenomenon seems at first sight to be a more tangible one than the longitudinal wave theory. It is possible, too, that the impact of the molecules on the aluminum window of Lenard, or on the glass sides of the vessel, may serve to start ripples, so to speak, in the ether, which are propagated with the velocity of light.

The Röntgen phenomenon seems to be a manifestation of cathode rays brought to light and endowed with great practical interest by its application to dry-plate photography. When we return to the classical investigation of Lenard mentioned in the beginning of this article, we are impressed by an apparently crucial

Röntgen Picture of a Hand after Lengthened Exposure.
From The New York Medical Journal.

experiment which he describes in regard to the existence of an ether. He caused the cathode beam to pass out of his high vacua through an aluminum window into another tube about three feet long, which had been exhausted to such a high degree that no electrical discharge would pass through it. It seemed, therefore, to have an infinite electrical resistance. No cathode beam could be generated in it; nevertheless, by moving suitable disks of fluorescent matter from point to point in the tube by means of an outer magnet which attracted bits of iron on the disks, Lenard showed that the cathode beam passed through the vacuum. Energy passed into the vacuum and could be detected from point to point. We can conceive of its passing through the ether in the tube by a wave motion, but not by a molecular movement, for there were no molecules to move. The molecular bombardment must have stopped at the aluminum window, and the resulting energy may have been propagated by ripples in the ether. This experiment of Lenard seems to me the most interesting one in the subject of cathode rays. The greatest mystery, however, which envelops the subject is the action of the X rays on bodies charged with electricity. When the rays fall on, for instance, a charged pith ball, the charge disappears. A positive as well as a negative charge is dispelled by the X rays. The energy of the medium about the pith ball is changed to a marked degree, and in this phenomenon we seem to be brought closer to a wave theory in a medium than to a molecular theory of movement of matter.