The Discovery of X-Ray

Melvin Futrell
December 8, 2020
The Discovery of X-Ray

Imagine practicing medicine without seeing inside the body, performing surgery without knowing beforehand which bone is broken. We're trying to diagnose a condition based solely on the patient's outward symptoms. The ability to see inside a living human body without cutting it open was a turning point in medical history.

In the late 1800s, Dr. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, a German scientist and mathematician, studied at the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich. He was appointed to the University of Furstenberg faculty and was the Physical Institute director at his discovery time. As a teacher and researcher, his academic interest was the conduction of high voltage electricity through low vacuum tubes. A low vacuum tube is simply a glass tube with some of the air evacuated from it. The specific type of tube that Röntgen was working with was called a crooks tube. Upon ending his workday on November 8, 1895, Röntgen prepared his research apparatus for the next experimental session to be conducted and when he would return to his workplace. He darkened his laboratory to observe the electrical glow, the cathode rays that occurred when the two were energized. The tube's glow would indicate that the two were receiving electricity and were ready for the next experiment. 

On this day, Röntgen covered his two with black cardboard and again electrified the tube. By chance, he noticed a faint glow coming from some material located several feet away from his electrified to the source was a piece of paper coated with barium Platinum cyanide. He did not believe that the cathode rays could reach that far from the tube rock and repeated the experiment. Each time Röntgen energized his tube, he observed this glow coming from the barium Platner cyanide-coated paper. He understood that energy emanating from his tube was causing this paper to produce light or to fluoresce. Fluorescence refers to the instantaneous production of light resulting from some energy interaction, x rays, and some element or compound. In this case, barium plant no cyanide. 

Here is a demonstration of the principle of fluorescence. When a particular material is exposed to radiation, it gives off light. When the radiation stops, so does the glowing light. This is how Röntgen first noticed there was a different type of radiation being produced from the crooks tube. Röntgen was understandably excited about this apparent discovery. But he was also cautious not to make any early assumptions about what he had observed. Before sharing information about his discovery with colleagues, Röntgen spent some time meticulously investigating this new type of energy's properties. Knowing that others were doing similar research, Röntgen worked earnestly to determine just what broke this energy. He spent the next several weeks working feverishly in his laboratory to investigate as many properties of this energy as he could. He noticed that when he placed his hand between the energized tube and the barium Platinum cyanide coated paper, he could see the bones of his hand glowing on the paper with this fluoroscopic image moving as he moved his hand. Curious about this, he called us, called to his wife Bertha, and said, let me show you what I'm doing because no one will believe this. Then he placed his wife's hand under the tube and produced a static image of her head using a 15-minute exposure. Upon seeing the image of the bones in her hand, she said, "I have seen my death". In those days, people only saw skeletons after someone had died. The idea of seeing part of the body on an image of a living person was beyond anyone's imagination. This became the world's first radiograph in December 1895. 

After much study, Röntgen decided that his investigations of this energy were completed to inform his physicist colleagues of what they now believed to discover a new form of energy. He called this energy x rays with x, representing the mathematical symbol. On December 28, 1895, Röntgen submitted a scholarly paper on his local professional society's research activities. Vers Burg Physio Medical Society, written in his native German. His article was titled upon a new kind of race, and it caused a buzz of excitement in the medical and scientific communities. Within a short time, an English translation of this article appeared in the journal Nature, dated January 23, 1896. Rankin views his discovery as an important one, but he also viewed it as primarily academic interest. His interest was in the X-ray itself as a form of energy, not possible practical uses.

Others quickly began assembling their X-ray-producing devices and exposed inanimate objects and tissue, both human and animal, both living and dead, to determine the range of the use of these x rays. Their efforts were primarily driven by skepticism, not belief that x rays could do what had been claimed. Skepticism eventually gave way to productive curiosity, as investigations concentrated on imaging the living human body for medical benefit. 

Rankin's discovery was lauded as a great significance to science and medicine for his efforts and discoveries. In 1901, Röntgen received the first Nobel Prize presented for physics. The branch of medicine that was concerned with using x rays was called Röntgenology, a unit of radiation exposure was called the Röntgen, and x rays were in the early days, often referred to as Röntgen rays. Within a few weeks, the world had changed. 

The Legacy left by Röntgen can be found throughout medicine, in plain film, x rays, and complex CT scans. And to NASA's Chandra telescope, astronomers are using to observe and record x rays from across the universe. All from a discovery which happened by accident.

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