MedMuseum

The story of a very special tube

How our colleagues in Rudolstadt brought a 125-year-old X-ray tube back to life
Our first medical X-ray tube is inspected by RGS employees Siff, Immelen, Horn, and Schnitzler in a photo probably taken toward the end of 1896 or at the beginning of 1897

Our first medical X-ray tube is inspected by RGS employees Siff, Immelen, Horn, and Schnitzler in a photo probably taken toward the end of 1896 or at the beginning of 1897

When news of the discovery of X-rays emerged in January 1896, the world was changed forever – and our company embarked on a brave new era in its history. Just three days after the discovery was announced, we began building our first X-ray tube for medical applications. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen himself remarked that our product was “really very good” and ordered additional tubes from us – first by postal card and then by letter – for use in his experiments. The postal card and letter communicating Röntgen’s orders are some of the most treasured items in our MedArchiv. What our collection lacked; however, until now was a faithful model of the tube itself. As we prepared for the year of the X-ray in 2020, we came up with an idea. We asked our colleagues at the X-ray factory in Rudolstadt: “Are you able to bring back to life the first X-ray tube in the history of our company?”

Original sketch from 1896 of the first X-ray tube from RGS

Original sketch from 1896 of the first X-ray tube from RGS

As it turned out, the detailed reconstruction of a 125-year-old X-ray tube was more challenging than we had thought. The processes involved in the industrial manufacturing of our modern tubes bear little resemblance to the entirely manual techniques that were used in 1896. Moreover, the original plans contained in our MedArchiv left us puzzled: What materials made up the inside of the tube? How exactly were the individual components built and assembled? To answer these questions, we needed an original tube that we could examine in greater detail.

Tube-collector Udo Radtke brought his original X-ray tube to Rudolstadt
Tube-collector Udo Radtke brought his original X-ray tube to Rudolstadt

Our search quickly led us to Udo Radtke, a passionate collector who has amassed over 10,000 radio, transmitter, and X-ray tubes from all over the world in his private museum in Gütersloh since 1975. “Yes, of course I have your first X-ray tube in my collection,” he told us over the phone, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “I found it a few years ago in England.” We invited Udo Radtke to Rudolstadt, where we gave him a VIP tour of our production facility, had our experts examine his original X-ray tube, and scanned every last detail of it using our SILAC system. Based on the resulting technical drawing, our master glassblower Jörg Linke along with tubemakers Stefan Werner and Andre Knäblein got to work.

Jörg Linke making the tube by hand – just as they did 125 years ago
Jörg Linke making the tube by hand – just as they did 125 years ago

“It’s only when you try to reconstruct something that you come to appreciate the craftsmanship that people were capable of in the past,” says Jörg Linke, “especially when you consider that they lacked the technical capabilities we have today.” To familiarize himself with the historical working methods, Jörg Linke visited the nearby town of Gehlberg. Back in 1896, this is where our X-ray tubes were built based on our blueprints by a company called Gundelach, as we didn’t have glassworks of our own in those days. He compared notes with other glassblowers, asked Udo Radtke for advice, and familiarized himself with the materials of the time. For example, glass is now much harder than it was in the past – and Linke explains that he needed significantly “more firepower” to shape the tube without corners and edges.

The accurate reconstruction of the first X-ray tube in the history of our company.
The accurate reconstruction of the first X-ray tube in the history of our company.

This was followed by several weeks of preparation, in which Linke carefully felt his way around the unfamiliar, manual techniques. By January 2020, the time had finally come: The first reconstruction of our historical X-ray tube was ready.