At the turn of the 20th century radiation became the big new thing in science. Following it’s discovery in 1895 it had instant appeal to scientists but, unlike a lot of things that get scientists excited, it also fascinated the general public.
The result of so much interest quickly led to the development of a lot of great things such as X-rays, radio waves, microwaves and radiation therapy. But what tends to be forgotten is that because of the completely unknown and poorly understood nature of radiation, a lot of bad ideas were made too. The thing about bad ideas involving radiation is that they tend to be quite bad ideas indeed…
It’s actually quite hard to describe what radiation is because we use radiation for so many different things that it’s difficult to give it an all-encompassing definition. But if we get down to basics, radiation is simply energy that travels. This may not mean much to you but let me give you a few examples.
The form of radiation you’re probably most familiar with is what we call visible light. This is exactly what it sounds like; it’s the light that you see, the colours of the rainbow – red to violet and everything in between.
It might be surprising to know that visible light is radiation because we typically think of radiation as something dangerous but, as I said, radiation is just energy and that’s exactly what light is. Visible light is just radiation we can see.
You might remember these diagrams from school where you had to draw arrows to show how light travels from the sun, bounces off an object like a red ball and then travels into the eye to show how we see things? Well those arrows you drew were radiation, radiation from visible light getting reflected off the red ball and detected by the eye.
So what makes some radiation dangerous? Well, to understand this you need to understand that radiation, even visible light radiation, travels in a pattern known as a wave which you can see illustrated in the image below right.
I’m not going to go into massive detail here because wave physics gets pretty intense. What’s important to us is that waves have energy and the amount of energy they have is described by the wavelength.
Wavelength is just a term for how spread out the waves are. To make this clearer, in the picture on the right you can see that the red light wave is very spread out compared to the violet light wave. We call this spread out wave a long wavelength. Violet light isn’t as spread out so it has a shorter wavelength. Long wavelengths have low energy and short wavelengths have high energy. Therefore, we can say that violet light has the most energy of visible light and red light has the least energy.
This is something that’s easy to prove if you think of a flame; the coldest part of the flame, the outside, is red/orange, changing to yellow as you get closer to the centre and blue in the middle. The middle of the flame is the hottest part so it has the most energy. Higher energy means a shorter wavelength which is why the hottest part is blue and not red. This is the very basis of what we need to know about radiation to continue on.
Beyond visible light
Now, visible light isn’t dangerous to us at all, we know that because we’d have a very bad experience of life otherwise. But consider that violet light isn’t the shortest possible wavelength of radiation you can get. There are much shorter wavelengths with much higher energy and this is where the dangerous radiation comes in. The image below shows how other forms of radiation compare to visible light.
To me, the most interesting part of this image is just how small the section for visible light is compared to everything else. It’s been blown up in the image above but you can see that, in radiation terms, it’s barely a sliver between infared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV).
You may have already heard of the next shortest wavelength after violet, ultraviolet (UV). It’s outside of the visible light range so we can’t see it but if you stay out in the sun for too long you’ll easily see (and feel) the effects that it has on your skin in the form of sunburn. Ultraviolet radiation doesn’t have enough energy to pass through your skin but it certainly has enough energy to do damage. This is because when you start going to shorter wavelengths than violet light you start getting to the dangerous levels of energy that we typically think of as radiation.
On the other side of visible light we have radiation of longer wavelengths, radiation weaker than that of visible light. You’ve probably heard of the next longest wavelength too, infared (IR) radiation. Again, we can’t see it but you can definitely feel it because infared radiation is heat. You know that moment when you’re on holiday or you live in a hot place and you step out of an air conditioned building into a blast of midday heat? That’s infared radiation hitting you in the face.
You can actually see it using special cameras typically used by the police and the military which allow them to see the infared radiation given off by anything hot. It lets them ‘look through walls’ to see if there are any people in a building or track criminals on the run at night using a helicopter with an infared camera.
It’s not just for the police and the military though, you might even have a camera at home capable of seeing infared, many webcams do. If you have one there’s a really interesting thing you can do if you also have a glass top stove (it sounds strange but bear with me). A glass top stove looks something like the image below on the left. It’s typically made of a opaque, dark glass that you can’t see through with the heating elements hidden underneath the rings. What’s interesting is, if you look at this same stove through an infared camera you’ll see the image on the right – the dark glass becomes see-through. This is because dark glass prevents all visible light coming through it but, being a stove, it has to let heat through. Heat, as we now know, is infared radiation. For that reason, if you view the glass through an infared camera you’ll be able to ‘see through’ it as the glass is designed to let infared radiation (heat) through.
Infared radiation isn’t really dangerous. It’s used in things like mobile phones and remote controls which obviously pose no threat. Then again, I wouldn’t recommend putting your hand on a stove or into a flame. Infared radiation is heat after all and hopefully I don’t need to tell you the dangers of too much of that.
Infared and ultraviolet were discovered quite early as far as radiation goes, 1800 and 1801 respectively. Neither of them are particularly dangerous which is why we don’t typically think of them as radiation, visible light included.
It wasn’t until 1895, almost one hundred years later, that we discovered the first of the dangerous radiations; X-rays.
The story of the discovery of X-rays is actually quite a good one and despite the dangers of X-ray radiation, our first use of it was surprisingly beneficial.
It all started in November 1895 when a scientist called Wilhelm Röntgen was doing some experiments in a dark room passing electrical currents through special tubes known as Crookes tubes. One undesirable side effect of this work was that the electrical current created light in the tube which, because he was working in a dark room, he didn’t want. He fixed this by housing the tube in completely light-tight black cardboard. Problem solved.
Except, when he resumed his work he noticed that a screen two metres away was glowing but only when he was running his experiment. This was confusing because the only source of light in the whole room was the tube securely enclosed in cardboard. After repeating this a few times he realised that the only explanation was that the light in the tube was capable of passing though the cardboard.
This was an absolutely absurd discovery at the time, it went against everything scientists knew about light. It would be like telling someone today that you discovered a special type of brick that could be thrown through solid walls. Röntgen himself couldn’t believe what he was seeing but speculated that the light he was dealing with was made of completely unknown rays. For this reason he called them X-rays, x being the mathematical symbol for something unknown.
He spent the next few weeks practically living in his lab testing the new X-rays. He tried to pass them through a variety of materials; aluminium, copper, even the walls of his lab themselves but the X-rays were able to pass through everything. It was only when he tried blocking the rays with lead that he was able to stop them. An interesting thing happened then because, as he was moving the lead into position, he didn’t realise that the X-rays were still switched on. As he passed in front of them he saw the reflection of his own skeleton on the screen opposite. Unknown to him, he’d just taken the first radiographic image and discovered another thing that X-rays can’t pass through – bone.
It was at this point that he decided to continue his work in secret, fearing for his scientific reputation. During this time he took the very first picture using X-rays; his own wife’s hand, which you can see in the image on the right. Keep in mind that, at this time, the only time a skeleton was seen was when someone died so, to them, seeing human bones was the same as seeing death itself. It was no surprise then that when Röntgen’s wife saw the image of her own skeleton she exclaimed “I have seen my death!”
Röntgen finally published his work on 28th December 1895 to massive scientific acclaim. His work was so influential that the first medical application of X-rays came just two months later. The speed that X-rays moved from the lab to the hospital is practically unheard of and is one of the fastest examples of that ever happening.
Röntgen went on to win the first ever Nobel prize in physics in 1901 for his discovery of X-rays and is considered today to be the father of radiology.
The dangers of X-ray radiation
We now know that, despite the huge benefits of X-rays in medicine, being exposed to them for too long is dangerous. It should be no surprise to us now to hear that the first X-ray scientists reported burns, hair loss and, later, much higher chances of developing cancer.
In one famous case, renowned inventor Thomas Edison started working on X-rays and employed a glassblower, Clarence Madison Dally, to develop the X-ray tubes for him. Not knowing the dangers, Clarence liked to test every X-ray tube he made on his own hands. After just five years doing this he developed cancers in his hands that resulted in the full amputation of both arms in an attempt to save his life. It didn’t work. He died in 1903 – one of the first deaths from X-ray radiation just eight years after it’s discovery.
After seeing it’s effects Thomas Edison abandoned all work on X-rays, famously stating, “Don’t talk to me about X-rays, I am afraid of them.”
So what makes X-rays so dangerous?
Well, X-rays possess that dangerous quality associated with all ‘real’ radiation; it damages DNA. X-ray radiation is what we call ionising radiation. That means that it literally gives your atoms an electrical charge. When those electrically charged atoms hit DNA, they can tear it apart.
There are two reactions to DNA being torn apart; cells containing that DNA die or the DNA mutates. Dead cells are actually not so bad (unless too many cells die, then you’ll have a problem), we can make new cells pretty easily. But if your DNA mutates then the cells may become cancerous. That cancer might spread and then you’ll suffer the same fate as Clarence, our poor glassblower.
Now, with what I’ve said about X-rays you might be getting the impression that you should never have a medical X-ray ever again. You don’t need to worry, we’ve made a lot of progress since 1903. The truth is that modern X-ray machines use such a low dose of X-ray radiation that the chance of developing cancer is absolutely minimal.
In fact, it’s been estimated that by the time the average person is 75 years old X-rays would have raised the chance of developing cancer by just 0.6-1.8%1. That is a small price to pay for the information doctors get from an X-ray. Consider that if you absolutely needed an X-ray the only alternative would be opening you up to have a look… The risk of a ~1% increase in cancer when you’re 75 is a whole lot better than the immediate risks of emergency surgery.
I mean, you shouldn’t go crazy scheduling weekly X-rays but if you’re in a situation where a doctor tells you that you need one, it’s probably far better to have one than not.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
Returning to the beginning of the 20th Century, interest in radiation was taking off. In 1896, the year after Röntgen discovered X-rays, another scientist called Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium was radioactive. Following this, Becquerel’s student, Marie Curie, along with her husband Pierre Curie, went on to discover three more radioactive elements; thorium, polonium and radium, between 1898 and 1902. All of these elements produced ionising radiation, including a certain amount of gamma radiation which has an even shorter wavelength than X-rays.
The period following these discoveries was the start of an era of absolutely terrible decisions involving radiation. As the quote goes, ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’ Scientists of the time had only a little knowledge of radiation and yet some truly terrifying things were done based on this knowledge.
The first of these things happened in 1904 when it was discovered that the waters of many of the worlds most famous natural health springs were radioactive. And this is true, there’s a lot of radioactive radium in the ground through which these waters flow. It’s actually not a serious health concern, the dose of radiation in health springs is so low that it poses little risk.
The problem was that some doctors got inspired by this and suggested that some patients might benefit from a little radium in their bath water at home… After all, it wasn’t known why these health springs were ‘healthy’ and the newly discovered radiation was as good a reason as any. It was very quickly offered as a treatment for arthritis, gout and nerve pain.
To be honest, even this wasn’t that terrible. Radium was very expensive to extract so the amounts used for treatment were tiny and probably had little adverse effect on the patients. And indeed, after about ten years of radium baths with little signs of their benefit, their usefulness started to be questioned. In response, it was declared by doctors that radium could only be successfully used in high doses.
This might have been the end of it but in 1913 advances were made in the extraction of radium which suddenly made radium mining a very big, and therefore cheap, thing. Radium could now be offered in higher doses.
When radium suddenly became cheaper it was no longer restricted to the medical profession. It could now be obtained by companies and salesmen.
One of the early radium products offered by salesmen was radon water, radon being the radioactive gas produced by radium. Radon water was simply water taken from the health springs and offered as a health drink. Thankfully, radon water didn’t stay radioactive very long because the half life of radon is only about 3.8 days. That means by the time it was bottled and shipped, it was barely radioactive any more. Good news for consumer health.
Except, when this was discovered the salesmen were treated as con men. Their product didn’t offer the radiation it claimed. Consumers, rather than feeling happy that they hadn’t been ingesting radiation, felt cheated, ripped off. This led to one of the strangest inventions of the early 20th century…
In order to guarantee the radiation content of the water, a water cooler, the Revigator (right), was developed lined with uranium and radium ore. The idea was that any water stored in the cooler would be constantly infused with radon gas from the ores. The good news for consumers was that they were no longer being ripped off, the bad news was that this was because the Revigator worked.
The government steps in
As the radium water industry developed through the 1910s and 20s there came the inevitable fraudulent products. Complaints were made that some companies were making radioactive products that were not as radioactive as they claimed.
In what is now a completely bizarre episode in history, the government went so far as to shut down companies that sold completely safe but falsely advertised radioactive products because they were not radioactive enough. Companies used it as a selling point that they offered the high doses of radiation that they claimed.
This all came to a head in 1932 when well known socialite and athlete Eben Byers died of radiation poisoning. It’s believed that, between 1928 and 1930, he’d drank almost 1400 bottles of radioactive water brand Radithor that directly led to his death. Aside from the multiple radiation-induced cancers, he also lost most of his jaw and holes were forming in his skull. His body was believed to be so radioactive that he was, and still is, buried in a lead lined coffin.
Following his death the Wall Street Journal ran the headline, “The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off”. This, along with Byers public profile led to greater awareness of the dangers of ingesting radiation and this time the government implemented laws that restricted it’s use in food and drink.
I wish I could say that radium water was the only product to use the ‘benefits’ of radiation. Sadly, it seemed to make it’s way into everything…
The ‘Radium girls’
Radium wasn’t just a supposed ‘healthy’ additive for food and drink, it also glowed in the dark. This is why, throughout the 1910s and 20s, watch dials started to be painted with radium.
Unfortunately, these watch dials had to be prepared by someone and this job fell to the women we now call the ‘radium girls’. As employees of the US Radium Corporation it was their job to take glue, water and radium powder and paint it onto the individual watch faces. The problem was, the work called for a fine point on the brush and the way the women were taught to do this was to shape the point with their mouths.
Unsurprisingly, many of them went on to develop radiation poisoning which included cancer, anaemia, bone fractures and the loss of their jaw. The reason for the jaw loss seen in these girls and Eben Byers by the way is because radium ends up replacing calcium in the bones where it degrades marrow and mutates bone cells.
The reaction of the management was disgraceful to say the least. Aware of the dangers of radium themselves, they carefully avoided any exposure to it while encouraging the women to lick their brushes. Then, when the women started suffering from radiation sickness they rejected these claims and did their best to prevent doctors and dentists from releasing their data. Doctors were further urged to attribute any deaths to the sexually transmitted disease syphilis in an attempt to smear the women’s reputations. By 1927 more than 50 women had died.
The one good thing to come out of this shit show was that the resulting lawsuit and publicity resulted in the development of labour laws which, among other things, made it possible for workers to sue companies for labour abuse. Because of this, industrial safety standards improved almost immediately and, with the passing of further laws, safety standards and employee rights continue to improve to this day.
Even more uses for radiation
I don’t have the space to go into detail about some of the other things radiation was used for in the early 20th century but among some of the craziest were:
Uranium blankets – a bag containing uranium ore that would be placed on the wrists as a treatment for arthritis.
Radioactive toothpaste – small amounts of thorium would be added to toothpaste for it’s ‘antibacterial action’ and to ‘strengthen the defense of teeth and gums.’
Cosmetics – face powder brand Tho-radia was made with radium and thorium for it’s ‘health benefits.’
Impotence treatment – the Radioendocrinator was a card coated in radium that would be worn inside the underwear at night to treat impotence. There were also radioactive rods that could be inserted into the urethra… Incidentally, the inventor of the Radioendocrinator was the same man behind Radithor, the drink that killed Eben Byers. He went on to die of bladder cancer in 1949.
X-ray shoe fitter – a device used in shoe stores to make an X-ray of the foot which, supposedly, helped shoe salesmen find the best fitting shoe. It was in fact completely useless and existed only as a marketing gimmick because the whole foot needs to fit in a shoe, not just the bones…
Thankfully, today we are well aware of the dangers of ionising radiation and every care is taken to reduce our contact with it. We know now what the limits for human exposure should be and what level of exposure poses a health risk.
That’s why these days the only people that carry any risk of radiation exposure are those that specifically work with it. To protect these people there are strict laws that govern how long they can work in these conditions as well as safe operating levels of background radiation in their working environment that must be conformed to.
I believe that now, despite our irresponsible attitude towards radiation in the early 20th century, we are very aware of its dangers. If anything, I’d say that we’re overly aware of its dangers. And that’s probably a good thing.
- Risk of cancer from diagnostic X-rays: estimates for the UK and 14 other countries, A. Berrington de González and S. Darby, Lancet, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(04)15433-0, published online 31 January 2004, abstract.
- clarence madison dally
- Crookes tube
- health spring
- marie curie
- Nobel prize
- periodically amended
- pierre curie
- radiation poisoning
- radiation sickness
- radioactive toothpaste
- radium bath
- radium girls
- radon water
- thomas edison
- uranium blanket