This week in science history: November 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen discovers X-rays

By Thomas Bainbridge

On the 8th of November 1895, Karl Wilhelm Rontgen was working in his darkened laboratory studying a well-known phenomenon in which cathode rays were released out of a partially vacuumed Crookes tube. After some time, he noticed an unexpected result: a fluorescent screen that he had set up in the vicinity of his experiment began to glow a distinct shade of green. He knew this was not due to the exposure from the cathode rays themselves as he had installed a cardboard barrier between the apparatus and the screen. Rather he surmised that this glowing was caused by a different emission altogether which he temporarily designated an X-ray – ‘X’ indicating an unknown entity.

Rontgen conducted further investigations which were completed over the course of an exhilarating 7-week stint, dutifully studying all aspects of his new finding. During this time, he unearthed a startling property: these rays were able to pass easily through human tissue, and yet not through bone (as it was too dense).

As a result, it was now possible to gain a direct insight into the skeletal system of the body. Such a discovery was revolutionary.

Until then, a detailed examination of bodily internal structures had only been possible through extensive and complicated surgical work (and even then, mostly on cadavers). To see the skeleton of someone alive was unheard of. The first instance of such an incredible yet grim insight came as Rontgen’s wife, Anna, had an x-ray image created of her own hand. This impressed upon her a morbid realisation as she exclaimed to her husband: ‘I’ve seen my death!’.

Of course, scientific discoveries can be double edged, and the X-ray was unfortunately not exempt from this

Almost immediately the discovery was put to use in the 1898 Spanish-American war. Doctors were able to ascertain the exact position of bullets lodged in a person’s wound without the usual extensive and excruciating probing previously required. In more recent efforts, X-ray technology has been used in mammography (that is the study and treatment of breast cancers), and to gain a greater understanding of issues surrounding the lungs such as pneumonia.

Of course, scientific discoveries can be double-edged, and the X-ray was unfortunately not exempt from this. The discovery exposed humankind to the harsh reality of its external fragility, and the ease with which our biological makeup could be harmfully altered. An example of this soon followed in 1904 as an assistant in Edison’s workshop, Clarence Dally, died due to skin damage from repeated X-ray irradiation.

Though medicine has been the focal point for the applications of Rontgen’s discovery in which it has been a resounding success (and besides frivolous commercial reactions such as the invention of ‘X-ray proof underwear’), it was also a major event in the scientific community at large; often touted as ‘the first step in the modern era of Physics’.

In many ways, Rontgen acted in a Promethean role as the discovery was the catalyst for the eventual studies of radioactivity and nuclear physics, through the work of Henri Becquerel and Marie Curie. This was to be earth-shattering in both our conceptual understanding of the universe, and the sheer extent of the raw elemental powers that are able to be harnessed in our constructive and destructive endeavours (with nuclear power and weaponry following not far behind).

Regardless of such outcomes, Rontgen’s work was of such a great magnitude that he was the first to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics. As a testament to his compassionate and modest character, he donated all of the prize money towards more scientific research and refused to patent his incredible discovery in order that it could be employed throughout the world in life-saving procedures, where it still remains today as a staple of the medical arsenal.

Image: Cara Shelton via Unsplash

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