The abstract artist and his World War I "X-Ray Car"
In 1897, at the age of 22, Henry Lyman Saÿen's career in scientific instruments seemed to be set. Little did he know that his talents would soon take him in another direction, including to Paris and back, through the art circles of Gertrude Stein.
While working for Queen & Company, a Philadelphia manufacturer of scientific equipment, the young engineer distinguished himself by designing a revolutionary new X-ray tube. The tubes in use at the time required the presence of a very low pressure gas to generate the electrons that were needed to produce X-rays. As these tubes were used, the pressure would gradually drop and compromise the quality of the X-rays. Saÿen's X-ray tube was the first that would automatically regulate its own gas pressure. His basic design was in wide use until the introduction of the gas-free Coolidge tube about 20 years later.
When the Spanish-American war began in 1898, Saÿen enlisted in the army and set up what may have been the first military X-ray lab at Fort McPherson, Georgia. While there, he contracted typhoid fever and spent several months convalescing.
In 1899, he switched careers and enrolled in The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He joined the artists of the Sketch Club and met and married a fellow art student, Jeanette Hope. Their art careers took off: he was selected to decorate a committee room in the U.S. Capitol (H-143) and she contributed fashion designs for Wanamakers Department Store and began writing about fashion for the Philadelphia Times and the North American.
In 1906, the couple received an offer from Rodman Wanamaker to go to Paris to report on fashion. Within a week, they were on a boat to Europe. She continued her successful career; her articles and illustrations were syndicated in American newspapers. Because Saÿen's real interest was modern art, he soon joined the emerging circle of abstract artists in Paris. He studied for a time with Henri Matisse and the couple became regulars at Gertrude Stein's apartment on the Rue de Fleurus. Saÿen appears to be one of Gertrude's favorites because he is mentioned several times in her work. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, she writes:
The room was lit at this time by high gas fixtures… They had just been put in. Before that there had only been lamps, and a stalwart guest held up the lamp while others looked. But gas had just been put in and an ingenious American painter named Saÿen, to divert his mind from the birth of his first child, was arranging some mechanical contrivance that would light the high fixtures by themselves.
While in Paris, he had several successful art shows but continued to take on engineering projects to help subsidize his art. He even received a French patent for the design of a steel billiard ball. A large collection of his art donated by his daughter, Ann Saÿen, is now held at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
At the outbreak of World War I, the couple returned with their infant daughter to Philadelphia. His last technical project involved a proposal for a set of five mobile X-ray labs to be used at the front. He first had had the idea for a mobile army lab in 1898 when he envisioned:
A covered wagon, drawn by two mules…besides a complete set of tubes, and photographic apparatus, a little dynamo and a windlass, so that the mules could put in their spare time in charging the storage batteries…
In the World War I version, an automobile engine replaced the mules and each vehicle was to be fully equipped with x-ray tubes, fluoroscopes, an operating table and dark room, staffed by fellow Philadelphia artists whom he recruited. The proposal was written in May 1917 and sent forward.
Unfortunately, Saÿen was never able to realize this vision. He died at the age of 43 in the spring of 1918. The U.S. Army Medical Department eventually granted contracts to acquire a full range of radiography equipment from the five largest US manufacturers of X-ray tubes, but that's another story. According to a memoir written by Jeannette many years later, her husband had been showing persistent signs of fatigue for several months. At the end, she wrote that after slipping into a coma, he died suddenly. He is remembered not only as a brilliant engineer who made a fundamental contribution to x-ray technology, but also as an American pioneer in abstract art.
Eric Kearsley is a volunteer working in the Medicine and Science Division of the National Museum of American History.