Though unspectacular to look at, this camera represents the birth of modern molecular biology. It was designed by Astbury and built in the textile department workshops in the mid 1930s. It was used by William Astbury, Florence Bell, Elwyn Beighton and other members of the team for their study of fibrous proteins. Click here to learn about how X-ray diffraction helps us to understand the structure of molecules. The study of DNA was an aside to their mainstream work on naturally-occurring fibres such as wool, silk, cotton and chitin. It is one of two identical instruments used in the lab, one of which was used in 1939 by Florence Bell to take the first ever photograph of DNA. and is currently being featured as part of the BBC/British Museum's 'A History of the World in 100 Objects' project.

The camera is very simple in design. Its components are:-

Astbury X-ray Camera 1

1. A metal tube collimator to produce a narrow parallel beam of X-rays.

2. A support to hold the specimen in the X-ray beam.

3. A photographic film, held behind a thin sheet of aluminium foil. This prevented light from darkening the film, but was more or less transparent to X-rays. Exposure times were typically hours or days, and afterwards the film was developed and fixed in the normal way.

4. Lead shielding to prevent stray X-rays escaping into the laboratory.

Astbury X-ray Camera 2

Click here to hear Prof. Greg Radick, (Centre for History and Philosophy of Science, University of Leeds) discussing the importance of Astbury's camera in an interview on BBC Radio Leeds (broadcast 15th Feb 2010)

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