Today in History: German scientist observed X-rays for the first time

On this day in 1895, physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (1845–1923) became the first person to observe X-rays

On this day in 1895, physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (1845–1923) became the first person to observe X-rays, a significant scientific advancement that would ultimately benefit a variety of fields.

Röntgen’s discovery occurred accidentally in his Wurzburg, Germany, laboratory. He was testing whether cathode rays could pass through glass when he noticed a glow coming from a nearby chemically coated screen. He dubbed the rays that caused this glow ‘X-rays’ because of their unknown nature.

X-rays are electromagnetic energy waves that act similarly to light rays, but at wavelengths approximately 1 000 times shorter than those of light. Röntgen holed up in his lab and conducted a series of experiments to better understand his discovery. He learned that X-rays penetrate human flesh but not higher-density substances such as bone or lead and that they can be photographed.

Rontgen’s discovery was labelled a medical miracle and X-rays soon became an important diagnostic tool in medicine, allowing doctors to see inside the human body for the first time without surgery. In 1897, X-rays were first used on a military battlefield, during the Balkan War, to find bullets and broken bones inside patients.

Scientists were quick to realise the benefits of X-rays, but slower to comprehend the harmful effects of radiation. Initially, it was believed X-rays passed through flesh as harmlessly as light.

However, within several years, researchers began to report cases of burns and skin damage after exposure to X-rays, and in 1904, Thomas Edison’s assistant, Clarence Dally, who had worked extensively with X-rays, died of skin cancer. Dally’s death caused some scientists to begin taking the risks of radiation more seriously, but they still weren’t fully understood.

During the 1930s, -40s and -50s, in fact, many American shoe stores (and some in South Africa) featured shoe-fitting fluoroscopes that used X-rays to enable customers to see the bones in their feet; and it wasn’t until the late 1950s that this practice was determined to be risky business.

Wilhelm Röntgen received numerous accolades for his work, including the first Nobel Prize in physics in 1901, yet he remained modest and never tried to patent his discovery. Today, X-ray technology is widely used in medicine, material analysis and devices such as airport security scanners.

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  AUTHOR
Blake Linder
Journalist

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