Rontgen Discovers X-Rays

Although Wilhelm Röntgen is credited with the discovery of x-rays, he was almost certainly not the first to observe them, since they were readily produced using cathode ray devices. Many earlier scientists may have noticed but ignored such strange effects around their laboratories as glowing lights and foggy or overdeveloped photographic plates while experimenting with cathode rays, but probably dismissed or ignored them. It was Röntgen who recognized x-rays as a new type of radiation.

Born in a small German village, Röntgen decided at an early age to study science, rather than follow his father as a cloth merchant. As a student, however, he preferred the outdoors to a classroom, and he was expelled from high school for assisting in a prank which had offended one of the instructors. Reputed to be insubordinate, Röntgen found the doors to the universities all but closed to him, and he was forced to apply to a local Technical School. Still, he completed his undergraduate studies in 1868, and in 1869 received his Ph.D. in philosophy. Röntgen then moved to Zurich, Switzerland and became an assistant to German physicist August Kundt (1839-1894) who introduced him to the world of physics.

It was not until he was fifty years old that Röntgen began the work that made him internationally famous. While studying the effects of cathode rays emitted by luminescent chemicals, Röntgen noticed something very strange: when he turned on the power in his cathode ray tube, a sample of barium platinocyanide across the room glowed even though the tube was enclosed in black cardboard thick enough to prevent cathode rays from escaping. He deduced that the rays crossing the room must be of a completely new variety and many times more penetrating than cathode rays. He moved the barium platinocyanide sample away from the tube, finding that it glowed even when placed in the next room.
Röntgen, having discovered what was at that time the most powerful radiation known to science, was understandably excited. He knew that, in order to gain recognition, he must publish his findings before someone else discovered these rays. He spent the next seven weeks exhaustively researching and observing his new rays, which he named x-rays, since “x” is the mathematical symbol for an unknown. During this period he found that x-rays were completely invisible, traveled in a straight line, could be neither reflected nor refracted, and were unaffected by magnetic fields. Never before or since has there been a more dramatic reaction among the scientific community as well as the general populace as that which followed the publication of Röntgen’s x-ray research in December, 1895. He delivered his first public lecture on x-rays in January, 1896 and demonstrated therein the rays’ ability to photograph the bones within living flesh. Less than twenty days later, an x-ray machine was used in the United States to locate a bullet within a patient’s leg. Newspapers world-wide printed astounding photos of “living skeletons.” Physicians proclaimed it a modern miracle, while doomsayers predicted an end to privacy, envisioning devices that could peer through walls, doors, and clothing.

The repercussions of Röntgen’s discovery spread exponentially. Henri Becquerel used x-rays as the springboard for his own discovery of radioactivity, a discovery that ultimately led to a greater understanding of the atom and that opened the door to the nuclear age. Scientists today consider the discovery of x-rays to be the beginning of the Second Scientific Revolution (just as Galileo’s discoveries sparked the first).
Röntgen received numerous accolades for his discovery, including the very first Nobel Prize for physics, but he invariably declined or donated any monetary prizes that would accompany his awards. He strongly believed that science belonged to everyone, and that all nations should benefit from its advances; he also refused to patent any facet of x-rays or their production. Thus, he was without substan-tial savings when the years following World War I brought hyperinflation to the German economy. He died in poverty in 1923 from intestinal cancer, probably caused by prolonged exposure to x-rays.

“Wilhelm Konrad Röntgen.” World of Health. Gale, 2007. Science in Context. Web.

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