On Hurtful Actions of Lenard and Roentgen Tubes

by Nikola Tesla





Electrical Review

May 5th, 1897


The rapidly extending use of the Lenard and Roentgen tubes or Crookes bulbs as implements of the physician, or as instruments of research in laboratories, makes it desirable, particularly in view of the possibility of certain hurtful actions on the human tissues, to investigate the nature of these influences, to ascertain the conditions under which they are liable to occur and — what is most important for the practitioner — to render all injury impossible by the observance of certain rules and the employment of unfailing remedies.


As I have stated in a previous communication (see Electrical Review of December 2, 1896) no experimenter need be deterred from using freely the Roentgen rays for fear of a poisonous or deleterious action, and it is entirely wrong to give room to expressions of a kind such as may tend to impede the progress and create a prejudice against an already highly beneficial and still more promising discovery; but it can not be denied that it is equally uncommendable to ignore dangers now when we know that, under certain circumstances, they actually exist. I consider it the more necessary to be aware of these dangers, as I foresee the coming into general use of novel apparatus, capable of developing rays of incomparably greater power. In scientific laboratories the instruments are usually in the hands of persons skilled in their manipulation and capable of approximately estimating the magnitude of the effects, and the omission of necessary precautions is, in the present state of our knowledge, not so much to be apprehended; but the physicians, who are keenly appreciating the immense benefits derived from the proper application of the new principle, and the numerous amateurs who are fascinated by the beauty of the novel manifestations, who are all passionately bent upon experimentation in the newly opened up fields, but many of whom are naturally not armed with the special knowledge of the electrician — all of these are much in need of reliable information from experts, and for these chiefly the following lines are written. However, in view of the still incomplete knowledge of these rays, I wish the statements which follow to be considered as devoid of authoritativeness, other than that which is based on the conscientiousness of my study and the faith in the precision of my senses and observations.


Ever since Professor Roentgen’s discovery was made known I have carried on investigations in the directions indicated by him, and with perfected apparatus, producing rays of much greater intensity than it was possible to obtain with the usual appliances. Commonly, my bulbs were capable of showing the shadow of a hand on a phosphorescent screen at distances of 40 or 50 feet, or even more, and to the actions of these bulbs myself and several of my assistants were exposed for hours at a time, and although the exposures took place every day, not the faintest hurtful action was noted — as long as certain precautions were taken. On the contrary, be, it a coincidence, or an effect of the rays, or the result of some secondary cause present in the operation of the bulbs — as, for example, the generation of ozone — my own health, and that of two persons who were daily under the influence of the rays, more or less, has materially improved, and, whatever be the reason, it is a fact that a troublesome cough with which I was constantly afflicted has entirely disappeared, a similar improvement being observed on another person.


In getting the photographic impressions or studying the rays with a phosphorescent screen, I employed a plate of thin aluminum sheet or a gauze of aluminum wires, which was interposed between the bulb and the person, and connected to the ground directly or through a condenser. I adopted this precaution because it was known to me, a long time before, that a certain irritation of the skin is caused by very strong streamers, which, mostly at small distance, are formed on the body of a person through the electrostatic influence of a terminal of alternating high potential. I found that the occurrence of these streamers and their hurtful consequence was completely prevented by the employment of a conducting object, as a sheet of wire gauze placed and connected as described. It was observed, however, that the injurious effects mentioned did not seem to diminish gradually with the distance from the terminal, but ceased abruptly, and I could give no other explanation for the irritation of the skin which would be as plausible as that which I have expressed; namely, that the effect was due to ozone, which was abundantly produced. The latter peculiarity mentioned was also in agreement with this view, since the generation of ozone ceases abruptly at a definite distance from the terminal, making it evident that a certain intensity of action is absolutely required, as in a process of electrolytic decomposition.


In carrying further my investigations, I gradually modified the apparatus in several ways, and immediately I had opportunities to observe hurtful influences following the exposures. Inquiring now what changes I had introduced, I found that I had made three departures from the plan originally followed; First, the aluminum screen was not used; second, a bulb was employed which, instead of aluminum, contained platinum, either as electrode or impact plate; and third, the distances at which the exposures took place were smaller than usual.


It did not require a long time to ascertain that the interposed aluminum sheet was a very effective remedy against injury, for a hand could be exposed for a long time behind it without the skin being reddened, which otherwise invariably and very quickly occurred. This fact impressed me with the conviction that, whatever the nature of the hurtful influences, it was in a large measure dependent either on an electrostatic action, or electrification, or secondary effects resulting therefrom, such as are attendant to the formation of streamers. This view afforded an explanation why an observer could watch a bulb for any length of time, as long as he was holding the hand in front of the body, as in examining with a fluorescent screen, with perfect immunity to all parts of his body, with the exception of the hand. It likewise explained why burns were produced in some instances on the opposite side of the body, adjacent to the photographic plate, whereas portions on the directly exposed part of the body, which were much nearer to the bulb, and consequently subjected to by far stronger rays, remained unaffected. It also made it easy to understand why the patient experienced a prickling sensation on the exposed part of the body whenever an injurious action took place. Finally, this view agreed with the numerous observations that the hurtful actions occurred when air was present, clothing, however thick, affording no protection, while they practically ceased when a layer of a fluid, quite easily penetrated by the rays, but excluding all contact of the air with the skin, was used as a preventive.


Following, now, the second line of investigation, I compared bulbs containing aluminum only with those in which platinum was used besides, ordinarily as impact body, and soon there were enough evidences on hand to dispel all doubt as to the latter metal being by far the more injurious. In support of this statement, one of the experiences may be cited which, at the same time, may illustrate the necessity — of taking proper precautions when operating bulbs of very high power. In order to carry out comparative tests, two tubes were constructed of an improved Lenard pattern, in size and most other respects alike. Both contained a concave cathode or reflector of nearly two inches in diameter, and both were provided with an aluminum cap or window. In one of the tubes the cathodic focus was made to coincide with the center of the cap, in the other the cathodic stream was concentrated upon a platinum wire supported on a glass stem axially with the tube a little in front of the window, and in each case the metal of the latter was thinned down in the central portion to such an extent as to be barely able to withstand the inward air pressure. In studying the action of the tubes, I exposed one hand to that containing aluminum only, and the other to the tube with the platinum wire. On turning on the former tube, I was surprised to observe that the aluminum window emitted a clear note, corresponding to the rhythmical impact of the cathodic stream. Placing the hand quite near the window, I felt distinctly that something warm was striking it. The sensation was unmistakable, and, quite apart from the warmth felt, differed very much from that prickling feeling produced by streamers or minute sparks. Next I examined the tube with the platinum wire. No sound was emitted by the aluminum window, all the energy of the impact being seemingly spent on the platinum wire, which became incandescent, or else the matter composing the cathodic stream was so far disintegrated that the thin metal sheet offered no material obstruction to its passage. If big lumps are hurled against a wire netting with large meshes, there is considerable pressure exerted against the netting; if, on the contrary — for illustration — the lumps are very small as compared with the meshes, the pressure might not be manifest. But, although the window did not vibrate, I felt, nevertheless, again, and distinctly, that something was impinging against the hand, and the sensation of warmth was stronger than in the previous case. In the action on the screen there was apparently no difference between the two tubes, both rendering it very bright, and the definition of the shadows was the same, as far as it was possible to judge. I had looked through the screen at the second tube a few times, only when something detracted my attention, and it was not until about 20 minutes later, when I observed that the hand exposed to it was much reddened and swollen. Thinking that it was due to some accidental injury, I turned again to the examination of the platinum tube, thrusting the same hand close to the window, and now I felt instantly a sensation of pain, which became more pronounced when the hand was placed repeatedly near the aluminum window. A peculiar feature was that the pain appeared to be seated, not at the surface, but deep in the tissues of the hand, or rather in the bones. Although the aggregate exposure was certainly not more than half a minute, I had to suffer severe pain for a few days afterward, and some time later I observed that all the hair was destroyed and that the nails on the injured hand had grown anew.


The bulb containing no platinum was now experimented with, more care being taken, but soon its comparative harmlessness was manifest, for, while it reddened the skin; the injury was not nearly as severe as with the other tube. The valuable experiences thus gained were: The evidence of something hot striking the exposed member; the pain instantly felt; the injury produced immediately after the exposure, and the increased violence due, in all probability, to the presence of the platinum.


Some time afterward I observed other remarkable actions at very small distances from powerful Lenard tubes. For instance, the hand being held near the window only for a few seconds, the skin seems to become tight, or else the muscles are stiffened, for some resistance is experienced in closing the fist, but upon opening and closing it repeatedly the sensation disappears, apparently no ill effect remaining. I have, furthermore, observed a decided influence on the nasal discharge organs similar to the effects of a cold just contracted. But the most interesting observation in this respect is the following: When such a powerful bulb is watched for some time, the head of the observer being brought very close, he soon after that experiences a sensation so peculiar that no one will fail to notice it when once his attention is called to it, it being almost as positive as touch. If one imagines himself looking at something like a cartridge, for instance, in close and dangerous proximity, and just about to explode, he will get a good idea of the sensation produced, only, in the case of the cartridge, one can not render himself an account where the feeling exactly resides, for it seems to extend all over the body, this indicating that it comes from a general awareness of danger resulting from previous and manifold experiences, and not from the anticipation of an unpleasant impression directly upon one of the organs, as the eye or the ear; but, in the case of the Lenard bulb, one can at once, and with precision, locate the sensation; it is in the head. Now, this observation might not be of any value except, perhaps, in view of the peculiarity and acuteness of the feeling, were it not that exactly the same sensation is produced when working for some time with a noisy spark gap, or, in general, when exposing the ear to sharp noises or explosions. Since it seems impossible to imagine how the latter could cause such a sensation in any other way except by directly impressing the organs of hearing, I conclude, that a Roentgen or Lenard tube, working in perfect silence as it may, nevertheless produces violent explosions or reports and concussions, which, though they are inaudible, take some material effect upon the bony structure of the head. Their inaudibility may be sufficiently explained by the well founded assumption that not the air, but some finer medium, is concerned in their propagation.


But it was in following up the third line of inquiry into the nature of these hurtful actions, namely, in studying the influence of distance, that the most important fact was unearthed. To illustrate it popularly, I will say that the Roentgen tube acts exactly like a source of intense heat. If one places the hand near to a red-hot stove, he may be instantly injured. If he keeps the hand at a certain small distance, he may be able to withstand the rays for a few minutes or more, and may still be injured by prolonged exposure; but if he recedes only a little farther, where the heat is slightly less, he may withstand the heat in comfort and any length of time without receiving any injury, the radiations at that distance being too weak to seriously interfere with the life process of the skin. This is absolutely the way such a bulb acts. Beyond a certain distance no hurtful effect whatever is produced on the skin, no matter how long the exposure. The character of the burns is also such as might be expected from a source of high heat. I have maintained, in all deference to the opinions of others, that those who have likened the effects on the skin and tissues to sunburns have misinterpreted them. There is no similarity in this respect, except in so far as the reddening and peeling of the skin is concerned, which may result from innumerable causes. The burns, when slight, rather resemble those people often receive when working close to a strong fire. But when the injury is severe, it is in all appearances like that received from contact with fire or from a red-hot iron. There may be no period of incubation at all, as is evident from the foregoing, remarks, the rays taking effect immediately, not to say instantly. In a severe case the skin gets deeply colored and blackened in places, and ugly, ill-foreboding blisters form; thick layers come off, exposing the raw flesh, which, for a time, discharges freely, Burning pain, feverishness and such symptoms are of course but natural accompaniments. One single injury of this kind, in the abdominal region, to a dear and zealous assistant — the only accident that ever happened to any one but myself in all my laboratory experience — I had the misfortune to witness. It occurred before all these and other experiences were gained, following directly an exposure of five minutes at the fairly safe distance of 11 inches to a very highly-charged platinum tube, the protecting aluminum screen having been infortunately omitted, and it was such as to fill me with the gravest apprehensions. Fortunately, frequent warm baths, free application of vaseline, cleaning and general bodily care soon repaired the ravages of the destructive agent, and I breathed again freely. Had I known more than I did of these injurious actions, such unfortunate exposure would not have been made; had I known less than I did, it might have been made at a smaller distance, and a serious, perhaps irremediable, injury might have resulted.


I am using the first opportunity to comply with the bitter duty of recording the accident. I hope that others will do likewise, so that the most complete knowledge of these dangerous actions may soon be acquired. My apprehensions led me to consider, with keener interest than I would have felt otherwise, what the probabilities were in such a case of the internal tissues being seriously injured. I came to the very comforting conclusion that, no matter what the rays are ultimately recognized to be, practically all their destructive energy must spend itself on the surface of the body, the internal tissues being, in all probability, safe, unless the bulb would be placed in very close proximity to the skin, or else, that rays of far greater intensity than now producible were generated. There are many reasons why this should be so, some of which will appear clear from my foregoing statements referring to the nature of the hurtful agencies, but I may be able to cite new facts in support of this view. A significant feature of the case reported may be mentioned. It was observed that on three places, which were covered by thick bone buttons, the skin was entirely unaffected, while it was entirely destroyed under each of the small holes in the buttons. Now, it was impossible for the rays, as investigation showed, to reach these points of the skin in straight lines drawn from the bulb, and this would seem to indicate that not all the injury was due to the rays or radiations under consideration, which unmistakably propagate in straight lines, but that, at least in part, concomitant causes were responsible. A further experimental demonstration of this fact may be obtained in the following manner: The experimenter may excite a bulb to a suitable and rather small degree, so as to illuminate the fluorescent screen to a certain intensity at a distance of, say, seven inches. He may expose his hand at that distance, and the skin will be reddened after a certain duration of exposure. He may now force the bulb up to a much higher power, until, at a distance of 14 inches, the screen is illuminated even stronger than it was before at half that distance. The rays are now evidently stronger at the greater distance, and yet he may expose the hand a very long time, and it is safe to assert that he will not be injured. Of course, it is possible to bring forth arguments which might deprive the above demonstration of force. So, it might be stated, that the actions on the screen or photographic plate do not give us an idea as to the density and other quantitative features of the rays, these actions being entirely of a qualitative character. Suppose the rays are formed by streams of material particles, as I believe, it is thinkable that it might be of no particular consequence, in so far as the visible impression on the screen or film is concerned, whether a trillion of particles per square millimetre strike the sensitive layer or only a million, for example; but with the actions on the skin it is different; these must surely and very materially depend on the quantity of the streams.


As soon as the before-mentioned fact was recognized, namely, that beyond a certain distance even the most powerful tubes are incapable of producing injurious action, no matter how long the exposure may last, it became important to ascertain the safe distance. Going over all my previous experiences, I found that, very frequently, I have had tubes which at a distance of 12 feet, for illustration, gave a strong impression of the chest of a person with an exposure of a few minutes, and many times persons have been subjected to the rays from these tubes at a distance of from 18 to 24 inches, the time of exposure varying from 10 to 45 minutes, and never the faintest trace of an injurious action was observed. With such tubes I have even made long exposures at distances of 14 inches, always, of course, through a thin sheet or wire gauze of aluminum connected to the ground, and, in each case, observing the precaution that the metal would not give any spark when the person was touching it with the hand, as it might sometimes be when the electrical vibration is of extremely high frequency, in which case a ground connection, through a condenser of proper capacity, should be resorted to. In all these instances bulbs containing only aluminum were used, and I therefore still lack sufficient data to form an exact idea of what distance would have been safe with a platinum tube. Froth the case previously cited, we see that a grave injury resulted at a distance of 11 inches, but I believe that, had the protecting screen been used, the injury, if any, would have-been very slight. Taking all my experiences together, I am convinced that no serious injury can result if the distance is greater than 16 inches and the impression is taken in the manner I have described.


Having been successful in a number of lines of inquiry pertaining to this new department of science, I am able at present to form a broader view of the actions of the bulbs, which, I hope, will soon assume a quite definite shape. For the present, the following brief statement may be sufficient. According to the evidences I am obtaining, the bulb, when in action, is emitting a stream of small material particles. There are some experiments which seem to indicate that these particles start from the outer wall of the bulb; there are others which seem to prove that there is an actual penetration of the wall, and, in the case of a thin aluminum window, I have now not the least doubt that some of the finely disintegrated cathodic matter is actually forced through. These streams may simply be projected to a great distance, the velocity gradually diminishing without the formation of any waves, or they may give rise to concussions and longitudinal waves. This, for the present consideration, is entirely immaterial, but, assuming the existence of such streams of particles, and disregarding such actions as might be due to the properties, chemical or physical, of the projected matter, we have to consider the following specific actions:


First. There is the thermal effect. The temperature of the electrode or impact body does not in any way give us an idea of the degree of heat of the particles, but, if we consider the probable velocities only, they correspond to temperatures which may be as high as 100,000 degrees centigrade. It may be sufficient that the particles are simply at a high temperature to produce an injurious action, and, in fact, many evidences point in this direction. But against this is the experimental fact that we can not demonstrate such a transference of heat, and no satisfactory explanation is found yet, although, in carrying my investigations in this direction, I have arrived at some results.


Second, there is the purely electrical effect. We have absolute experimental evidence that the particles or rays, to express myself generally, convey an immense amount of electricity, and I have even found a way of how to estimate and measure that amount. Now it is likewise possible that the mere fact of these particles being highly electrified is sufficient to cause the destruction of the tissue. Certainly, on contact with the skin, the electrical charges will be given off, and may give rise to strong and destructive local currents in minute paths of the tissue. Experimental results are in accord with this view, and, in pushing my inquiry in this direction, I have been still more successful than in the first. Yet, while as I have suggested before, this view explains best the action on a sensitive layer, experiment shows that, when the supposed particles traverse a grounded plate, they are not deprived entirely of their electrification, which is not satisfactorily explained.


The third effect to be considered is the electro-chemical. The charged particles give rise to an abundant generation of ozone and other gases, and these we know, by experiment, destroy even such a thing as rubber, and are, therefore, the most likely agent in the destruction of the skin, and the evidences are strongest in this direction, since a small layer of a fluid, preventing the contact of gaseous matter with the skin, seems to stop all action.


The last effect to be considered is the purely mechanical. It is thinkable that material particles, moving with great speed, may, merely by a mechanical impact and unavoidable heating at such speeds, be sufficient to deteriorate the tissues, and in such a case deeper layers might also be injured, whereas it is very probable that no such thing would occur if any of the former explanations would be found to hold.


Summing up my experimental experiences and the conclusions derived from them, it would seem advisable, first, to abandon the use of bulbs containing platinum; second, to substitute for them a properly constructed Lenard tube, containing pure aluminum only, a tube of this kind having, besides, the advantage that it can be constructed with great mechanical precision, and therefore is capable of producing much sharper impressions; third, to use a protecting screen of aluminum sheet, as suggested, or, instead of this, a wet cloth or a layer of a fluid; fourth, to make the exposures at distances of, at least, 14 inches, and preferably expose longer at a larger distance.



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