La Mancha’s miracle man

Mónico Sánchez overcame humble origins and the backwardness of 19th-century Spain to triumph in New York with his great invention: the portable X-ray machine

Mónico Sánchez with one of his inventions.
Mónico Sánchez with one of his inventions. COURTESY OF THE FAMILY OF MÓNICO SÁNCHEZ

Rosa Martín scours the shelves holding the photo albums. This researcher at the National Museum of Science and Technology finally pulls out the enormous brown folders with pictures of Mónico Sánchez. She is looking for the most illustrious one, showing him at Madison Square Garden, testing his portable X-ray machine. Standing next to him is the representative for General Electric (Thomas Edison), and behind the latter, the man from Westinghouse (Nikola Tesla). The photograph was taken in 1909 and it illustrates the spectacular journey made by Sánchez from Ciudad Real to New York, the Mecca of the emerging field of electricity.

If Mónico Sánchez's life were a movie script, it would be turned down as excessively fanciful. Born in 1880 in the poor La Mancha village of Piedrabuena, Ciudad Real province, the 23-year-old landed in New York with 60 dollars in his pocket and returned years later with a fortune, a bunch of patents on the effervescent world of electricity and one great invention: the portable X-ray case, the very same contraption that Marie Curie used on the front during World War I.

Juan Pablo Rozas, a telecoms engineer and lecturer at Castilla-La Mancha University, is an authority on Mónico, whom he describes as brilliant. Rozas is so fascinated by the man that he is working on a doctoral thesis about his life. He notes that Mónico studied at a public school and always showed gratitude to his teacher, Don Ruperto Villaverde, who showed him the importance of curiosity. First he worked as a store clerk, then moved to Madrid in 1901, at age 21. It was there that he found out that he could not enroll in engineering school. Later he heard that US Professor Joseph Wetzler was offering a distance course in electrotechnics, explains Manuel Lozano Leyva, chair in physics at Seville University, in his book El gran Mónico.

Rosa Martín tries to explain the magnitude of Mónico's achievement. "It is really unbelievable to be self-taught in electricity. Plus to do it in Madrid, through distance learning, and barely speaking any English. That's just amazing."

All by himself, Mónico mastered the ins and outs of the era's most cutting-edge technology. Years later, he made the jump to New York, arriving at Ellis Island in 1904, with no money but his head full of ideas for electrical devices. Due to his shaky English, at first he carried a small slate around to write down and erase words in order to make himself understood.

He soon began working as a draftsman while expanding his electricity studies. Five years later he joined Foote, Pierson and Company, which made telegraphy devices. Then he enrolled at Columbia University. He was in the right place at the right time. And the best was yet to come. In 1908, at age 28, Mónico became a full-fledged engineer at the Van Houten and Ten Broeck Company, specialized in applying electricity to medicine.

It is really unbelievable to be self-taught in electricity - and barely speaking any English. That's just amazing"

There were already X-ray machines back then, but they were enormously heavy. Mónico developed a portable version weighing only 10 kilograms. The Collins Wireless Telephone Company hired him to sell the device, which was called Collins-Sánchez. This company meant to develop wireless telephones, but the forecasts failed - this technology would not be developed until 90 years later - and Mónico decided to return to Spain when Collins was convicted for fraud.

In 1912, with a fortune under his arm, Mónico returned to Piedrabuena and set up the European Electrical Sánchez Company — the name always remained in English — even though the village didn't even have electricity. But this was no obstacle to Mónico; he built his own power station and tried to sell the excess production to the locals. There was no qualified workforce for his station, either, but "Mónico brought to Piedrabuena a German glass blower," explains Martín. A good glass blower is essential for the vacuum tubes that the electrons travel through.

Meanwhile, the portable X-ray machine quickly found a practical application. It was perfect to detect bullets lodged in the bodies of wounded soldiers during World War I. So the French Army ordered 60 units.

Back in Spain, Mónico visited doctors to explain the benefits of his invention. In the catalogue photographs, the scientist is seen carrying the case as he gets into a car, as though he were a doctor himself. But the Civil War and technological advances gradually left Mónico's lab behind, and he began supplying schools with his invention. They were perfect for students studying physics. Even today, there are some left in parts of Spain, and they are so reliable that they continue to work properly.

Mónico tried to breathe new life into his business with trips to the United States, but he ran into obstacles trying to import certain types of material. After his death in 1961, his family kept his inventions and over 200 discharge tubes that were matchless in Europe. In 2010, the collection reached the National Museum of Science and Technology, which exhibits some of Mónico's best-preserved devices at its A Coruña headquarters.

Eduardo Estébanez Sánchez, Mónico's grandson, remembers using the portable X-ray machines as a child. "My father was a doctor and a radiologist. I used it to do an X-ray of a bird. We kept everything. Mónico was well known in Piedrabuena, but not much outside of it." Estébanez, a mining engineer, has very few memories of his grandfather, who died when he was six. "My mother adored him, but she didn't talk much about his professional successes; she talked more about him as a person. Those who knew him have told me that he was exceptional, an extrovert with great charisma. Wherever he went, he was the center of conversation."

On September 7, the town of Piedrabuena will pay tribute to Mónico. A wall plaque at his old lab will remind passersby of Mónico Sánchez's achievements and his incredible journey.

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