November 8, 1895:
Röntgen and the X-rays
Physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (1845-1923) becomes the first person to observe X-rays. Röntgen’s discovery occurred accidentally in his Wurzburg, Germany, lab, where he was testing whether cathode rays could pass through glass when he noticed a glow coming from a nearby chemically coated screen.
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 learned that X-rays penetrate human flesh but not higher-density substances such as bone or lead and that they can be photographed.
Röntgen’s discovery was labeled 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.
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.
- German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen is usually credited as the discoverer of X-rays in 1895, because he was the first to systematically study them, though he is not the first to have observed their effects.
- The important early researchers in X-rays were Ivan Pulyui, William Crookes, Johann Wilhelm Hittorf, Eugen Goldstein, Heinrich Hertz, Philipp Lenard, Hermann von Helmholtz, Thomas Edison, Charles Glover Barkla, Nikola Tesla and Max von Laue.
- In many languages, X-radiation is called Röntgen radiation, after Wilhelm Röntgen, who had named it X-radiation to signify an unknown type of radiation.