X-rays mark 126 years since their discovery by Röntgen

This November 8 marks the 126th anniversary of the discovery – in 1895 – of X-rays by the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen, who opened the use of radiology for the diagnosis of diseases.

Working with a cathode ray tube in his laboratory, Röntgen produced electromagnetic radiation at wavelengths corresponding to what are currently called X-rays. His discovery earned him the Nobel Prize in 1901.

During 1895 Röntgen was investigating the external effects of various types of vacuum tube equipment when an electrical discharge is passed through them. In early November he repeated an experiment with one of Philip von Lenard’s tubes in which a thin aluminum window had been added to allow the cathode rays to exit the tube, but a cardboard cover was added to protect the aluminum from the damage caused by the strong electrostatic field required to produce cathode rays.

Röntgen knew that the cardboard covering prevented light from escaping, but observed that invisible cathode rays caused a fluorescent effect on a small cardboard screen painted with barium platinumcyanide when placed near the aluminum window. It occurred to Röntgen that the Hittorf-Crookes tube, which had a much thicker glass wall than the Lenard tube, could also cause this fluorescent effect.

In the late afternoon of November 8, 1895, Röntgen was determined to put his idea to the test. He carefully constructed a black cardboard cover similar to the one he had used on Lenard’s tube. He covered the Hittorf-Crookes tube with the cardboard and connected the electrodes to a Ruhmkorff coil to generate an electrostatic charge. Before mounting the barium platinum cyanide lampshade to test his idea, Röntgen darkened the room to test the opacity of his cardboard cover. When he passed the load from the Ruhmkorff coil through the tube, he determined that the cover was light and turned to prepare for the next step of the experiment.

It was at this point that Röntgen noticed a slight glow from a bench a few meters from the tube. To be safe, he tried several more shocks and saw the same glow each time. Upon finding a match, he discovered that the glow had come from the location of the barium platinum screen that he intended to use next.

Röntgen speculated that a new type of lightning could be responsible. November 8 was a Friday, so he took advantage of the weekend to repeat his experiments and make his first notes. In the weeks that followed, he ate and slept in his laboratory as he investigated many properties of the new rays that he temporarily termed “X-rays,” using the mathematical designation (“X”) for something unknown, Wikipedia reports. Röntgen’s first medical X-ray image was of his wife’s handreports Wikipedia.

Quickly, X-rays began to be applied in all fields of medicine, including urology. By the year of Roentgen’s first report, 49 books and more than 1,200 scientific journal articles had been written. Is considered one of the culminating points of medicine in the late nineteenth century, on which numerous diagnoses of nosological entities were based up to that time difficult to diagnose.

In the same way that Pierre Curie would do several years later, refused to register any patents related to its discovery for ethical reasons. He also did not want the rays to bear his name, however in German X-rays are still known as Röntgenstrahlen (Röntgen rays).

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