Little Bits of History

January 5

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 5, 2017


1895: Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery is announced in an Austrian newspaper. The German physicist was educated at the Federal Polytechnic Institute (today ETH Zürich) and then earned his PhD at the University of Zürich. He became first a lecturer and then a professor and worked at several different German universities. He had family in the US and had planned to emigrate, but although he had a position at Columbia University in New York City and had even bought tickets to travel abroad, World War I broke out and he remained in Germany. He remained in Munich for the rest of his career.

In 1895, Röntgen was investigating external effects from various types of vacuum tube equipment. He had machines from Heinrich Hertz, Johann Hittorf, William Crookes, Nikola Tesla and Philipp von Lenard and as he worked, an electrical discharge passed through them. He repeated the experiment using one of Lenard’s tubes to which a thin aluminum window had been added in order to allow the cathode rays to exit the tube. A cardboard covering was added to protect the expensive aluminum from damage from electrostatic fields. The cardboard prevented light from escaping but the tube projected a fluorescent effect onto cardboard covered with barium platinocyanide.

As the day wore on and his experimenting increased, he noticed something odd. A shimmering was seen distant from the tube. He theorized that the reaction was due to some unknown or “X” ray. In mathematics, X is often used for the unknown and that is how we came to have x-rays today although at first they were called Röntgen Rays. It was about two weeks later when he first took a picture using his newfound rays. He used his wife as his subject and she was astounded when she saw her skeleton photographed. Part of his experimentation was to find substances which stopped the rays and it was discovered that lead was able to keep the rays from penetrating. He wrote a paper on his discovery entitled “On A New Kind Of Rays” and this was reported in the newspapers on this date.

Röntgen  was given an honorary Doctor of Medicine for his contribution to diagnosticians. He went on to publish two more papers on his Röntgen  Rays. In 1901, he was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Physics. He donated the monetary prize to his university. Röntgen  refused to take out patents related to his discoveries allowing the entire world to benefit from this wonderful technology. Today, the low wavelength rays are used not only in medicine but also for astronomical discoveries as well as a host of other uses, including industrial uses and for airport security measures.

I did not think; I investigated. – Wilhelm Röntgen

Having discovered the existence of a new kind of rays, I of course began to investigate what they would do. … It soon appeared from tests that the rays had penetrative power to a degree hitherto unknown. – Wilhelm Röntgen

I have seen my death! – Anna Bertha Röntgen after seeing the x-ray of her hand

Röntgen retained the characteristic of a strikingly modest and reticent man. – from the Nobel Prize biography


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