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X-Ray X-Ray

The 4 most influential X Ray technicians


We often take the ability to see inside the human body for granted, and why wouldn’t we? X-ray technology is well over a century old. But imagine you live in a time where science isn’t really sure what an atom is and the discovery of electrons is merely a glimmer in some frisky physicists’ eyes, and you begin to appreciate just how insanely intelligent some of these scientists had to be to harness and comprehensively describe the X-ray in its early days.

Oh and there was also the fact that they completely revolutionized modern medicine with a discovery matched only by the discovery of antibiotics almost 30 years later.

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen

Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen

Widely considered to be the father of the X-ray, Rontgen wasn’t the first to notice that cathode ray tubes produced strange radiation, but he was the first to do something besides shrug and say “huh that’s funny”. In 1895, Röntgen published the first academic papers comprehensively describing what he called “X-rays”, mostly because he couldn’t think of a better name for the mysterious radiation.

Later, despite Röntgen’s humble non-Hawkingesque protests, it was renamed Röntgen rays, and remains as such in many languages. He also published some of the earliest X-ray photographs using his wife’s hand as the subject. This led to a common convention of early X-ray researchers using their hands as experimental subjects, resulting in the tragic death of several early researchers from virulent hand cancer.

Surprisingly, it took another X-ray (and all-around genius) to describe the harmful health consequences of X-rays.

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla

Well known as a general, all around bad ass who invented pretty much everything in the 20th century and got none of the credit for it, Tesla was a revolutionary early X Ray technician, conducting much of his research a full decade before Röntgen. Oh and while everyone else was using Crookes Tubes, which had been invented years before, Tesla just went ahead and invented his own X-ray generator from scratch, presumably as a side project one lazy Sunday while he was bored and felt like punching science in the scrotum for the 3rd or 4th time that week.

In 1897, two years after Röntgen’s discovery and explanation of X-rays, Tesla first warned earthlings scientists of the dangerous biological perils of too much X-ray exposure—a warning many researchers really took to heart by turning their hands into cancerous balls for the next few decades. Thankfully, modern doctors appreciate these century-old dangers and only prescribe high doses of X-ray radiation in extreme circumstances. Oh wait except they totally don’t.

John Ambrose Fleming

John Ambrose Fleming

Despite the somewhat unique last name, John Ambrose Fleming has no relation to Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of Penicillin. J.A. Fleming was, however, responsible for inventing the vacuum tube. That may not sound that impressive, until you realize that the vacuum tube is the granddaddy of…well pretty much every electronic device from modern X-ray machines, to the silicon chips in the computer you’re reading this on.

Before Fleming (and later, William Coolidge), X-rays were produced using Crookes tubes. To simplify the science, Crookes tubes generated X-rays by focusing a stream of electrons from a cathode to an anode that was angled to send the high-energy x-rays out of the side of the tube. Despite how awesome it would be if they did, the electrons couldn’t travel through a perfect vacuum, so a small amount of residual air was left in the tube.

The problem that resulted was that this air would slowly be absorbed by the glass in the tube, leading to a gradual lessening of the tube’s effectiveness, as well as a blackening of the glass which even further reduced its efficacy. Fleming came along and cranked the cathode up to 11 by replacing it with a heated filament, which generated enough “oomph” to allow the tube to operate in a more complete vacuum, extending its life and effectiveness. If you’ve ever been to the dentist’s and they break out a machine that looks like it was built in the 40s and will give you cancer just by looking at it, it’s thanks to Fleming’s robust design.

George Chapline Jr.

George Chapline Jr.

When most people think of lasers, what they’re actually thinking of is a short tube with mirrors at each end. An electrical charge is added to the mix, exciting some gas (your common laser pointer uses helium and neon) and causing it to emit photons. The photons are passed back and forth and then exude as a coherent beam of light. It’s difficult to argue that Chapline is quite the genius that Tesla was, but try reading the next few sentences without getting an America boner and we’ll see who the “genius” is then.

Some time in the 80s, when the United States was going through its “OH HELL YEAH WASN’T RED DAWN AWESOME” phase, researchers decided that light, mirrors and helium was for lame commies. Taking this thought to its logical conclusion, they decided to see if they could power a laser with a freaking thermonuclear explosion. To simplify the boring science in the interest of making this idea sound as badass as possible, George Chapline Jr. was the most prominent of a team of physicists who succeeded in focusing the massive amounts of X-rays generated by a nuclear explosion into multiple X-ray lasers.

The plan was to post a small contingent of satellites in orbit, each of which would be able to fire dozens of independently target, nuclear powered X-ray lasers at once, powered by a single warhead. This would theoretically give the United States the ability to shoot down the entire USSR arsenal of ICBMs in one fell swoop.

Of course, the important word there is “theoretically”, as the whole plan was dependent on technology that had yet to be developed as well as the idea that the nuclear X-ray laser would work reliably, which it totally didn’t. There was also the fact that this plan would require the US to put nuclear bombs in space floating over most of the countries on the planet and hope no one had a problem with that.


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