X rays

In Brief

"X rays," also known as "Röntgen rays," were discovered only eight or nine years before the time represented in Ulysses. They seized the imagination of ordinary people like Bloom, whose thoughts on the subject seem more than usually fuzzy.

Read More

In 1895 Wilhelm Röntgen, who held the physics chair at Würtzburg University in Germany, was working with a cathode-ray tube in his laboratory. He found that some kind of radiation was exciting fluorescent materials far removed from the tube (cathode rays were known to travel only a few centimeters in air). He blocked the tube with heavy cardboard and ensured that no light was entering the room, but the fluorescence was not abated. With further experiments, he found that the mysterious rays could penetrate many opaque materials including human flesh, but could not penetrate far into denser materials like metal and bone. He also found that they could produce images on photographic plates.

Several days before Christmas in the same year, Röntgen used his cathode-ray apparatus to take a radiographic image of his wife Bertha's hand. Several days after Christmas, he submitted an article describing his findings, along with the picture, to a scholarly journal. The article excited widespread interest, the picture became famous, and Röntgen won a Nobel prize in 1901. He named his mysterious findings X-rays, but much of the world called them Röntgen rays. Their diagnostic potential was recognized immediately: in 1896 a number of physicians and surgeons used the new rays to look inside patients' bodies, and at least two medical handbooks, Practical Radiography and The X-ray, or, Photography of the Invisible and its Value in Surgery, were published.

For more details of this story, see Dean Zollman's 2015 blog "Wonders of the X-ray" at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, summarizing an article that was published in the American Journal of Roentgenology in 1931, and "History of Radiography," another blog on the NDT Resource Center at www.nde-ed.org.

In Lestrygonians, a chapter concerned with the human alimentary canal, Bloom walks along Duke Street "toward Dawson street, his tongue brushing his teeth smooth" after his lunch in Davy Byrne's pub. The narrative finds him in the middle of an obscure train of thoughts: "Something green it would have to be: spinach, say. Then with those Röntgen rays searchlight you could." It is not at all clear why he thinks that green objects would show up better than others under X-rays (they do not, of course).

In Eumaeus the reader is treated to another display of obscure reasoning when Bloom tries to persuade Stephen that human intelligence can be attributed to "convolutions of the grey matter" rather than to the actions of an immortal soul: "Otherwise we would never have such inventions as X rays, for instance." The bizarre logic seems to be that only intelligence produced in a scientifically comprehensible way could possibly produce scientific discoveries.

JH 2018
Radiograph of Albert von Kölliker's left hand, taken at a public lecture by Röntgen in January 1896. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of hands being x-rayed in the 1890s, published in William J. Morton and Edwin W.  Hammer's The X-ray, or, Photography of the Invisible (1896). Source: Wikimedia Commons.