1895: X-rays Discovered

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On 8th November, 1895 William Röntgen made a discovery that would revolutionise physics and medicine.

At the time, Röntgen was working at the University of Würzburg. His experiments focussed on the light emitted from “Crookes tubes,” glass tubes with the air expelled from them and fitted with electrodes. When a high electric voltage is sent through the tube the result is a green fluorescent light. Röntgen realised that when he wrapped a piece of thick black card around the tube, a green glow appeared on a surface a few feet away. He concluded that the glow was caused by invisible rays that were capable of penetrating the card.

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Over the coming weeks, Röntgen continued to experiment with his new rays. He realised they were able to pass through substances other than paper. In fact, they could pass through the soft tissues of the body, creating images of the bones and metal. During his experiments, he produced an image of his wife’s hand wearing her wedding ring.

concern over X-ray glasses led to the production of lead underwear

News of Röntgen’s discovery spread globally and the medical community realised quickly that this was a major breakthrough. Within a year, the new X-ray was being used in diagnosis and treatment. It would take much longer however, for the scientific community to comprehend the damage that radiation caused.

The X-ray also captured the public’s imagination. People queued up to have ‘bone portraits’ taken and concern over X-ray glasses led to the production of lead underwear to protect modesty.

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In 1901, Röntgen received the first Novel Prize in physics. He donated the money from the Nobel Prize to the University of Würzburg and never took out any patents on his work in order that it might be used globally.

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