Roentgen's discovery of the x-ray

Find more x-rays in the X-ray Gallery.

Try to imagine how different life would be without modern medical technology. In 1895, the invention of the x-ray created an amazing step forward in the history of medicine. For the first time ever, the inner workings of the body could be made visible without having to cut into the flesh.

 

Wilhelm Roentgen, Professor of Physics in Worzburg, Bavaria, was the first person to discover the possibility of using electromagnetic radiation to create what we now know as the x-ray. The image below is the first x-ray Roentgen ever created. It is an image of his wife's hand - you can see her wedding ring.

 

Roentgen was exploring the path of electrical rays passing from an induction coil through a partially evacuated glass tube. Although the tube was covered in black paper and the room was completely dark, he noticed that a screen covered in fluorescent material was illuminated by the rays. He later realised that a number of objects could be penetrated by these rays, and that the projected image of his own hand showed a contrast between the opaque bones and the translucent flesh. He later used a photographic plate instead of a screen, and an image was captured. In this way an extraordinary discovery had been made: that the internal structures of the body could be made visible without the necessity of surgery.

 

By 1896 an x-ray department had been set up at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, one of the first radiology departments in the world. The head of the department, Dr John Macintyre, produced a number of remarkable x-rays: the first x-ray of a kidney stone; an x-ray showing a penny in the throat of a child, and an image of a frog's legs in motion. In the same year Dr Hall-Edwards became one of the first people to use an x-ray to make a diagnosis - he discovered a needle embedded in a woman's hand. In the first twenty years following Roentgen's discovery, x-rays were used to treat soldiers fighting in the Boer war and those fighting in WWI, finding bone fractures and imbedded bullets. Much excitement surrounded the new technology, and x-ray machines started to appear as a wondrous curiosity in theatrical shows.

 

It was eventually recognised that frequent exposure to x-rays could be harmful, and today special measures are taken to protect the patient and doctor. By the early 1900s the damaging qualities of x-rays were shown to be very powerful in fighting cancers and skin diseases.