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Jan 23

Defiant Modernism and the NHS: The Newton Victor Gyromax Rotating Anode 120 X-ray tube (1953)

Newton Victor Gyromax Rotating Anode 120 X-ray tube

Newton Victor Gyromax Rotating Anode 120 X-ray tube

The Newton Victor Gyromax Rotating Anode 120 X-ray tube is a good example of how Britain’s post World War II ideals were reflected in the rapidly developing field of health and medicine in the 1950s. During the 1950s, science was celebrated as an essential tool for national development which could be used to the benefit of all citizens. This national sentiment was epitomised in the 1951 Festival of Britain. The beginning of the Welfare State under Attlee’s Labour government and, in particular, the creation of the National Health Service in 1948 were defining moments in the history modern Britain; representing a cultural and political shift in British ideals and a change in the lives and values of the post-war citizen. As Andrew Marr puts it in A History of Modern Britain, the Second World War provided a catalyst for change which led to a revaluation of government practices. The preference for a largely laissez faire government, which had existed since the Eighteenth Century, was replaced by a mood ‘for big government, digging deep into people’s lives to improve them.’

Newton Victor Ltd. were specialists in industrial and medical X-ray equipment and supplies. The company was formed in 1949 as a merger of the Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Company, Newton and Wright Ltd, and the Victor X-ray Corporation. The foundation of the NHS heralded a new era of centrally administered health care for all. The control of over one thousand hospitals previously run by voluntary bodies or local authorities was now merged under the central authority of the NHS. Similarly, General Practitioner care – previously only enjoyed by those who had national insurance – was extended to include all citizens. By looking at the dates of the foundation of the NHS and the establishment of Newton Victor Ltd., one could hazard a guess that the company might have been founded to fill a gap in the market created by the NHS for the rapid production and distribution of increasingly complex diagnostic equipment for hospitals and general surgeries. Radiography is an essential diagnostic tool which allows potential injuries and conditions in many areas of the body (not only broken bones) to be identified quickly; thus allowing more efficient treatment. As such, Newton Victor and their products such as the Gyromax represent the important link which emerged in the immediate post-war period between science, industry, and the new social developments which occurred as a result of large scale planning under the Labour government, typified by the NHS.

Although X-rays had been used for diagnostic purposes since the late nineteenth century, the anode (the part of an X-ray tube which receives an electron beam from the cathode and emits it as an X-ray) had always been fixed. The first commercial X-ray tube to use a rotating anode was Philips’ Rotalix, released in 1929. This development made X-ray production more efficient and up to ten times more powerful than X-ray machines which used a fixed anode. As a result, the required exposure times were shorter; allowing clearer images of moving organs such as the heart to be produced. Although Victor Newton’s use of a rotating anode was not new in itself, the Gyromax model is an example of Britain’s pride in producing British scientific equipment, and of the zeitgeist of post-war Britain. Victor-Newton Ltd. proudly displayed the Gyromax and some of their other X-ray equipment at the 7th International Congress of Radiology, held in Copenhagen in 1953. This could be said to be an extension of the prevailing post-war attitude that Britain could be rebuilt and the country’s status enhanced through British technological and scientific development, as epitomised in the 1946 exhibition ‘Britain Can Make It!’

As well as its practical uses, the aesthetics of Newton Victor’s X-ray tube set it apart as an example of post-war technology. Made from aluminium, ceramic, plastic, steel and glass, with a high gloss black paint finish, it is futuristic yet simplistic in appearance. A world away in terms of design from the first X-ray tubes, it is an example of modern mass production. The product is an advertisement in itself both for Newton Victor Ltd., and the new realm of applied science in the post-war period. For example, its aesthetics are reminiscent of the displays at the Festival of Britain which had an overarching theme of modernity. Moreover, in some ways, its appearance can also be linked to the work of the Festival Pattern Group, which through a mixture of art and design and scientific knowledge made science more appealing and accessible to a greater number of people. Even the name of the product, ‘Gyromax’, is indicative of Britain’s post-war scientific ideals and the emerging use of brand power. A combination of ‘gyro’ – a prefix meaning to spin – and ‘max’ – suggesting maximum power – elicited a level of trust in the notion that Britain was producing some of the most advanced and professional equipment and thus living up to the ideals of the post-war citizen.

 Erica Read

Final Year Undergraduate

Member of the Science, Power and Politics in Twentieth Century Britain module

Suggested further reading:

Balbus, (Julian Huxley), Reconstruction and Peace: Needs and Opportunities, (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd., 1941)

Andrew Marr, A History of Modern Britain, (London: Macmillan, 2007), (Part One: Hunger and Pride)

NHS Choices, Health A-Z: X-ray: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/X-ray/Pages/Introduction.aspx