Who Discovered The X-Ray?

The X ray: Wilhelm C. Roentgen's breakthrough discovery.

On November 8th, 1895, German scientist Wilhelm Roentgen was conducting experiments in his laboratory on the effects of cathode rays. Specifically he was observing the effect of passing an electrical discharge through gases at a low pressure. While doing so, Roentgen noticed something that earlier studies had not picked up. While passing current through the cathode ray, rays were given off that passed through every day materials such as wood, paper and aluminium. Roentgen further observed that a surface that he had coated with barium platinocyanide and which was placed outside of the cathode discharge tube would give off light despite the fact that it was hidden from the light of the discharge. The conclusions that Roentgen came to were ground breaking: a previously unknown type of radiation had passed through the air and lit up the screen.

Roentgen's discovery was to open up an exciting field for doctors. It was now possible to use this new form of radiation in the study of the human body. Broken bones, for example, could now be looked at by using the rays to see straight through flesh. To underscore the unknown nature of his new discovery, Roentgen decided to call them x-rays.

Roentgen spent the next two months carefully investigating the properties of the new radiation he had discovered. He then made a formal correspondence to the University Physical-Medical Society informing them of his discovery. In 1901 he was to receive the Nobel Prize for his work. It was the crowning achievement of a career that saw him rise from obscurity.



Wilhelm Roentgen was born on March 27, 1845 in Lennop, a small town in Germany's Rhineland. As a young boy, Wilhelm was drawn to nature. He loved to experiment and to pull things apart. His school years, however, were quite troublesome. He was of average academic ability but had a knack for causing trouble. Refusing to bow down to the authority of his teachers, he was eventually expelled from school without any qualifications. This was a problem to young Wilhelm because he had set his sights on an academic career in the sciences.

In his late teens Wilhelm decided to give education a more serious effort. He enrolled at the Poly-Technical Institute in Zurich. Now showing the academic discipline that was earlier lacking, he soon earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Having done so, however, he was at somewhat of a loose end. He didn't yet know where he wanted to go with this qualification. It was at this time that Roetgen met the woman who was to be his wife, Anna Ludwig.

Roentgen decided to continue on with his studies and go for his doctorate in physics. This he achieved with a thesis on gases. When a professor at the Institute, Doctor August Kuntz, was given a position at the University of Wuerzburg, he encouraged his able student to go with him. But Roentgen was unable to find work in Wuerzburg. A lean period followed where Roentgen unsuccessfully applied for positions wherever he found them. Finally his luck changed. He was offered a position at the Wuerzburg University's Institute of Physics. By 1888, Roentgen had ascended to the prestigious position of Chancellor of the University.

Ronetgen's life was now spent teaching during the day and experimenting by night. It was while doing just that, after an exhausting day in the lecture theatre that he stumbled upon x-rays in November 1895. A month after his discovery he held a public display featuring the very first x-ray pictures - one's of his wife's hand. The news of this amazing breakthrough caused a major stir in the medical and scientific communities. The news had soon travelled around the world. Doctors soon picked up on the beneficial uses of the x-ray photography and were quick in using them to diagnose health complaints. In Germany the process was known for it's discoverer - Roentgen.

The very first Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Roentgen for the discovery of the x-ray. A year later his parents died and Roentgen inherited two million marks. He and his wife were now both rich and famous. He spent much time travelling, with little devotion to further scientific research. Wilhelm Roentgen died on February 10, 1923 at the age of 78. Since his death his invention has become a mainstay of modern medical treatment.

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