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'
The camera is very simple in design. Its components are:-
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
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
4. Lead shielding to prevent stray X-rays escaping
into the laboratory.