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"Madame Curie" and Electronics
March 1944 Radio-Craft

March 1944 Radio-Craft

March 1944 Radio Craft Cover - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Radio-Craft, published 1929 - 1953. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.

Marie and Pierre Curie discover radium  - RF CafeRight on time for the anniversary of Pierre and Marie Curie's 1989 discovery of the radioactive element radium is this article which appeared in a 1944 issue of Radio-Craft magazine. Editor Hugo Gernsback comments on the recently released (1943) film entitled "Madame Curie*," starring Greer Garson as Marie Curie and Walter Pidgeon as Pierre, criticizing it for not delving more deeply into the technical aspects of radium. Chief among the objections was the omission of information about how radiation treatment had been shown to cure some forms of cancer. Indeed, he cited his own experience with a "growth" on his hand that was successfully treated at a "radium hospital" where the doctor applied a bulb of radium to the tissue for a mere five minutes. It disappeared in less than two weeks. Beyond that would be radium's usefulness in generating electricity, creating wonderful visual effects created by its elemental decay (using a spinthariscope), nuclear propulsion of ships and aircraft, and highly precise atomic clocks.

* Here are clips (1) and (2) from the movie, and you can buy it on Amazon.

"Madame Curie" and Electronics

Uranium, according to the Curies, disintegrates into Radium - RF Cafe

This illustration shows how the element Uranium, according to the Curies, disintegrates into Radium, then to Radium Emanation, then Polonium and finally into lead at the end of its life.


By Hugo Gernsback

In the recent film, "Madame Curie," the producers were concerned only with the bare outline of how Radium was discovered by the Curies, but the film completely failed to tell the public the many wonders of Radium in word and picture. This deficiency is pointed out in this article which describes the major, almost miraculous powers of Radium.

"Because only a small number of technicians are aware of the unusual properties of Radium, which may play an important role in the future Radio and Electronic art, Radio-Craft takes great pleasure in presenting this article.

The motion picture industry in the past has covered itself with glory when technical subjects were involved which had to be interpreted to the public.

Such pictures as "The Story of Alexander Graham Bell" and "Edison, the Man," come to mind. Usually the various film "research departments did an excellent job in presenting the technical aspects of the various inventions without going into too many high technicalities.

After all, when the public sees a motion picture on the discovery of the telephone, or how electric light finally was perfected, it is quite obvious that the portrayal not only must give the whole story of the invention, but it must be technically correct and show its important uses too.

So when we witnessed the film presentation of "Madame Curie" the other day, we were in high hopes that the man in the street and the younger generation would be presented with a complete review of the wonders of Radium. We watched reel after reel of "Madame Curie" and were impressed with the profuse presentation of the many technical details on how Radium was discovered by the Curies. We see where the veteran scientist, Jaques Becquerel, calls the Curies into his laboratory to show them the first X-ray photographs ever made without X-rays and without electrical apparatus, but with a mysterious substance. In the screen version Professor Becquerel mentions that the substance was pitchblende. We smiled at this because in an article that Becquerel had once done for a Gernsback publication, he stated that all the early experiments were with the element uranium - the forerunner of Radium. We let this inaccuracy pass because the pitchblende tied in better with what followed in the picture, when we see the Curies working like Trojans in their cold laboratory - and outdoors as well - extracting Radium from the Austrian pitchblende. We watch them toiling over a large vat in which they melt the pitchblende. Later on we see them laboring over the fractional distillation of the valuable salts which later become Radium. We observe hundreds upon hundreds of evaporating dishes in which the liquids, pregnant with Radium, are evaporated to the tune of over 5,000 different operations to yield Radium salts in the preliminary stage. Then at the end of the titanic labor, which took many years, we finally see a small porcelain evaporating dish glowing softly in the dark - Radium has been discovered.

Professor Curie himself constructed the Radium Light - RF Cafe

1- Very soon after the element Radium had been isolated by the Curies, Professor Curie himself constructed the Radium Light which actually permits the reading of a newspaper six feet away. The device uses up nothing, except Radium, and will last for over two thousand years.

2 - If we could harness it, the electrical energy developed by a mere speck of Radium, weighing one-fiftieth gram and costing five hundred dollars could lift the Woolworth building one foot off the ground.

3 - The marvelous spinthariscope, wherein we witness the actual destruction of miniature worlds. It shows one of the most spectacular effects of Radium.

4 - A future ocean greyhound being driven across the ocean with a minute speck of Radium weighing 15/100 of a gram at a cost of $3750 which compares with the present one trip cost of $12.000 for coal.

5 - Professor Strutt's Radium "Clock." The glass vessel encloses a minute quantity of Radium contained in the tube A suspended by a quartz fibre B. The Radium charges the gold leaves C with electricity as is done in an electroscope. The gold leaves C now diverge till they touch the metallic lining of the enclosing tube. This discharges the gold leaves, which collapse; then the action starts over again. Such "clocks" have been working for 35 years. The action will last 2500 years.

Incidentally, the film producers had a of trouble to shoot this last scene, as Radium itself could not be used. After many trials an ordinary electric light bulb, arranged in a certain manner and covered with some water, was used to get the desired effect.

Now, then, the microscopic amount of Radium which the Curies finally isolated did not give a very heroic glow, which led to the exclamation of the young boy sitting behind us: "Gee, is that all?"

That was the first disappointment in the film, but nevertheless, the movie people were technically quite correct in their presentation of the glow. The very minute quantity of Radium could not give off a very strong glow.

But from here on the picture has no further technical presentation to make. It concerns itself only with the personalities of the Curies, and when the final fadeout came, we felt a distinct let-down, because we knew that the non-technical film audience would not get the slightest idea of what Radium was all about.

Having gone to so much trouble with all the other technicalities - which really were not too important - in the first part of the picture, one would reasonably expect that now the public would be presented with the spectacular effects of Radium. Nothing like that happens, however.

Perhaps the man on the street knows that Radium is used in medicine - but what does the average person know about it? In the motion picture Mme. Curie exhibits burns on her hands, obtained from handling the unknown substance, to a Paris physician, but outside of some highfalutin speculation on what Radium might be, and its great power, nothing else of importance transpires. It is also true that at the end of the picture, when 25 years after the discovery of Radium Mme. Curie is lecturing to the assembled great French scientists, some mention is made again of the healing power of Radium, but to the average listener it is all too vague and inconclusive. Too much class room lecturing.

When it is known that cancer has killed more people in the United States in 1943 than were killed on all the American fronts combined, we may be pardoned in saying that "Madame Curie" did not fulfill its main mission; that is, to instruct the masses on how cancer can be prevented if discovered early enough. Another hundred feet of film would have conveyed the message unmistakably. Here was an excellent chance to do so, but in this respect, too, the film missed the boat. It wasn't our thought that some ghastly cancer victim should be portrayed, but there are other early cancers and growths which do not look horrible when shown on the screen.

Several years ago, for instance, the writer had a large wart-like growth on the left index finger. He went to the Radium hospital, where the doctor in charge merely applied the so-called Radium bulb for five seconds to the growth. In less than ten days the growth had vanished completely, never to come back. Cancer of the skin frequently is not something to view with horror. Often it looks like an ordinary large wart. It could easily have been portrayed in the film with a most important message - that any growth anywhere on the body should never be neglected, but immediately reported to a physician. This phase fitted eminently into the scope of the film.

What about the other wonders of Radium - wonders so spectacular that they lend themselves extraordinarily well to motion picture presentation? Nevertheless, the film "Madame Curie" completely and totally ignored them. Merely to show what can be done and to refresh the memories of technical men and older readers, and to impress those who are not up on their Radium, we present here a number of illustrations which we originated way back in 1915. The illustrations appearing here are adapted from those published in the September, 1915, issue of the Electrical Experimenter.

We hear so much about electronics in these days that frequently the fact that Radium is one of the original reasons for the electron is lost sight of. Indeed, Radium and its various rays and emanations are partly responsible for the electron theory. It took Radium to revolutionize science as well as the concept of the atom and it may be said that the real discovery of the electron dates back to about the time of the discovery of Radium by the Curies.

This is shown graphically in one of our illustrations which shows how uranium, the key element, is transformed into Radium till it finally disintegrates into what is believed to be lead. It shows also graphically how the Beta "B" rays - that is, the negative electrons - are deflected by a magnet.

Another of our illustrations shows the famed Radium "clock" invented by Professor Strutt. If undisturbed, it will run some 2500 years, the average life of Radium. This "clock," usually constructed entirely of glass, is the nearest approach to perpetual motion that we know. There are a number of them in various scientific institutions, some of the "clocks" already having run uninterruptedly for over 35 years without replenishing the Radium.

Another spectacular wonder of Radium is not that Radium can give out light by itself, but that if it is used in conjunction with certain Radium salts, we can even construct a beautiful and practical reading lamp. Why this was not shown in the film is inconceivable to us - all the more so because it was actually constructed by Professor Curie himself. The illustration shows the construction of the lamp. It consists of two large glass bulbs, one having a solution of Radium salts, the other a small quantity of phosphorescent zinc sulphide. The two bulbs are connected by means of a glass tube, in the center of which is a stopcock. The lamp operates by placing it in a dark room. Then by opening the stopcock, the Radium emanation will travel from one bulb through the horizontal tube to the zinc sulphide. This illuminates the zinc sulphide crystals with such an intensity that it is possible to read a newspaper six feet away from the bulb, as shown in the illustration. Nothing is consumed, therefore such a lamp will last indefinitely. Only the high cost of Radium so far has prevented the Curie lamp from coming into general use.

One of the really spectacular effects of Radium which would have been a marvelous adjunct in the film - particularly if made in Technicolor - is the Spinthariscope, invented by Sir William Crookes. In the original instrument, Sir William used a mere speck of Radium salt which was suspended over a zinc sulphide screen. A much more simplified version which we constructed and of which thousands were sold, can be made nowadays by any school boy. The quantity of Radium used is so small that it is almost nil, yet the spectacular effect still is had. We used a metallic lipstick holder, in one part of which we fitted a lens, as shown. This is focused by sliding it up or down, because the adjustment is critical. In the other part of the lipstick holder we cemented a paper disc coated with strong Radium luminous paint (easily obtainable before the war, but now restricted until the end of hostilities). The full effect of the spinthariscope can only be had in total darkness. When the eye has become accustomed to the dark and the screen disc brought into focus, we behold a most extraordinary as well as astonishing spectacle in which we actually witness the destruction of worlds on a small scale.

We now watch the effect of the Radium Alpha particles as they continuously bombard the zinc sulphide atoms. This bombardment keeps up for 2500 years - longer than the simple apparatus can possibly last.

What we see with the eye is an amazing flickering as myriads of stars scintillate on a green background. So many thousands of collisions take place every instant that the eye is incapable of following them fast enough. It is an extraordinary spectacle and astonishing to those who have never seen the workings of the simple little instrument.

Another wonder of Radium, also completely lost sight of in the film, is the inherent power of Radium as it gives off a tremendous amount of heat for the whole of its 2500 years of life. Future man may smile when he reflects how stupid humans of the present-day used coal to heat their houses when it gives only 5% of its actual energy when translated into steam, the rest being carried off as waste heat.

Consider that one of our not too large ocean greyhounds uses about 6,000 tons of coal for a single trip, costing about $12,000 to $14,000 to propel the steamship across the ocean. Let us also not forget the terrific amount of space required to cart the coal across the ocean and the extra energy needed to carry it. The same condition, of course, prevails if we use oil, which is a bit more economical, but not much.

In burning one gram of coal, only about 8,000 calories of heat are obtained. In this transformation, however, two and two-thirds grams of oxygen also are consumed, so that the two substances together give us only about 2,200 calories of actual heat.

Some day man will find it possible to obtain the key to Radium so that instead of requiring a wait of 2500 years to get all the heat out of it, we can release it in a few days. What will happen then? Simply this:

One gram of Radium develops 133 calories of heat per hour. Therefore, in 2500 years we get 2,900,000,000 calories of heat. If you consider the tremendous energy transformation of the latent power in Radium, it is found to be a million times greater than that furnished by the combustion of coal! This gives a small idea of the tremendous power stored in Radium.

One of our illustrations shows a future greyhound using Radium instead of coal. In order to make a one-way trip to Europe, we would require 0.15 (15/100) of a gram of Radium, which at today's prices is worth about $25,000 per gram. Therefore a 0.15 gram would cost about $3750, which compares with a price of $12,000 for coal or oil! Radium, in other words, is almost four times cheaper than coal! On top of this we would gain tremendously by saving valuable space in the ocean liner which is now used for coal or oil; then, too, machinery for handling the coal or oil, manpower necessitated for all this, etc.

In our illustration we have shown a hypothetical boiler constructed in spherical form having a radius of several feet, and a small shell of steel or iron, with the Radium hung in the center of the boiler. Such a boiler would take up very little space and can be readily installed. The energy supplied by the Radium is distributed equally in all directions, and therefore the heating of the water in every part of the boiler is practically equal.

Radium would also be the ideal fuel for submarines, doing away with a lot of the cumbersome machinery now used, not to speak of the great load of weight which could better be used for torpedoes, and perhaps even airplanes.

Still another great wonder of the inherent energy of Radium is shown in a further illustration. Because Radium not only gives off heat but also electrical energy, we have in Radium a source of electrical energy not sufficiently appreciated even by many technicians. Our illustration makes this clear. A mere speck of Radium, weighing 1/50th of a gram, costing but $500.00, in the 2500 years of its life gives off sufficient electrical energy to lift the entire Woolworth Building, weighing 103,000 tons!

While the illustration was merely made to demonstrate the inherent electrical power of Radium, it is nevertheless accurate, because during the 2500 years of its life sufficient electrical energy is developed to actually perform the work as pictured.

Of course there is the hitch today of storing the energy, Even if we could transform the electrical energy of Radium into direct current and charge a huge storage battery, the losses incurred over a long period of time would not give us much energy at the end of 2500 years. This again simply shows our lack of means, because we have not progressed technically to the point where we can utilize the inherent power of Radium. The fact remains, nevertheless, that if at some future date - and it will surely come - we take 1/50th of a gram of Radium and utilize its electrical power instantly through a huge electromagnet, the Woolworth Building, with all its 103,000 tons, could be lifted one foot above the ground, as pictured.

These, then, are the actual wonders of Radium that could readily have been shown in "Madame Curie," easily making it the film of the year. We hope and trust that one of these days some enterprising motion picture producer will show what has been pictured here in a good educational two-reeler. We predict that the public will "eat it up."

* The Radium or Radio bulb is limited to precancerous lesions of the skin, particularly Keratoses.



Posted December 21, 2020

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