The history of the x-ray

Health humorist Nick Snelling uncovers the origins of the Röntgen ray.

Back in November 1895, a majestically bearded physics boffin by the name of Wilhelm Röntgen was tinkering about in his dusty old labs at Wurburg uni when he spotted an interesting phenomenon. You see, Röntgen was curious about the discoveries of some of his scientist peers – namely the likes of Nikola Tesla, Heinrich Hertz and Philipp Lenard – the latter two who had been experimenting for 20 years or so with some thingamajigs called Crookes tubes. In a nutshell, these devices were early vacuum discharge tubes that used an electrical charge to ionize electrons and emit cathode rays.

Late one Friday night after all his assistants had nicked off (c’mon, it was the weekend!), Röntgen took a Crookes tube and cranked up a few thousand volts through it via an induction coil – the idea being that a stream of charged electrons would materialise. While it’d be nice to think his next step was to reanimate a reassembled dead body (he was a kooky German, after all), in reality, his plan was just to see what happened… and that’s when, like a lot of great scientific discoveries, a few things flukishly came together at once.

For a start, Röntgen’s lab was dark (as we know, all mad scientists love poorly lit, dingy work environments.) Secondly, he’d covered his Crookes tube with a light-proof cardboard sleeve. But thirdly and most crucially, he’d happened to accidentally leave a screen of fluorescent material over on a desk nearby. To his amazement, when he turned the Crookes tube on a faint green luminescence began to glow from the sheet. Repeating the experiment, he realised that, given the cathode tube was covered with opaque cardboard and there was no light coming from anywhere else, it meant he was observing a type of invisible cathode ray yet undocumented – one that could pass through the sealed tube. Due to its unknown qualities, he dubbed it the ‘x-ray’.

From then on, much to the annoyance of his wife and the weariness of his assistants, Röntgen didn’t leave his lab for over eight weeks and his resplendent beard became quite unruly. Experimenting by placing the fluorescent screen in different positions, he wanted to see what else the x-rays could or could not penetrate. He found that the screen still fluoresced but with different results depending on the material being put before it. But it wasn’t until, one day, when he took a circular piece of lead and held it in front of the tube’s rays, that he totally freaked… not only was the shadow of the lead disc thrown up on the screen but he could also make out his fingers and thumb – and the bones within them!

At that moment, Röntgen’s irate missus, Bertha (yes, that was her real name) showed up. She’d had enough. He was to come home at once and that was that! Feverish with his discovery, Röntgen shushed her, replaced the screen with a photographic plate, and then asked the skeptical Frau Röntgen to step up and place her hand in front of the cathode ray for 15 awkward minutes. Sure enough, what emerged was the first proper x-ray photograph of a human subject. As both Röntgen and his wife witnessed the skeletal rendering of her hand develop with her wedding ring clearly visible, rumour has it she almost fainted, whispering, “I have seen my own death…” Röntgen, meanwhile, was highfiving himself.

Thus, the first x-ray was born.

From there, much to Röntgen’s mortification, he became a bit of a celeb – after agreeing to a personal presentation for Kaiser Wilhelm II, he was awarded a Royal Order of the Crown, the Rumfield Gold Medal and, later, the Nobel Prize. Scientists everywhere gave him kudos. But as word spread across the world (often accompanied by the notorious happy snap of his wife’s bony hand), Röntgen became increasingly bothered by the sensationalist coverage in the press, and wished only to be left alone continue his studies. Shunning applause, he even refused his physicist buddies’ calls that the x-rays be named Röntgen rays. In fact, the name stuck anyway, and x-rays are still called Röntgen rays in many countries today.

Recommended reading - Running guide

Lifestyle

Your quick-start guide to running training

Whether you're gearing up for a marathon or your first 5 km, prepare your mind, body and wardrobe.

Read more
Community

Five tips for the aspiring runner

Lightning quick Liam Adams offers a word of advice to aspiring runners.

Read more
Lifestyle

4 ways to prevent running injuries

Look after your body while you run. Here's how to lower your chances of getting injured.

Read more
Community

5 reasons to run in the morning

Understand how running in the morning can change your life, and why you should start now.

Read more
Experts

This running technique improves your form (and your glutes)

How a simple tweak to your running form can lead to better results.

Read more
Community

The benefits of training with a running coach

Running coaches are not reserved for elite athletes – here are the benefits of having one.

Read more
Community

Hit the ground running

Learn about the benefits of minimalist running, from strengthening your feet to preventing injury.

Read more
Experts

Choosing running shoes

Liam Rothwell goes over the most important things to consider when buying a pair of running shoes.

Read more
Advice

Four reasons to join the fun run community

Part social, part fitness and often charitable, here are four reasons to sign up for a fun run.

Read more
Health Check

5 ways your body changes by running

Running involves repeated muscle contractions, over and over again as you pound the pavement.

Read more
Advice

Relaxing post-workout bath ideas

Soothe those tired muscles with a calming, restorative bath.

Read more
Lifestyle

The history of the treadmill

Treadmills are a staple of the modern gym, but these devices have been around for centuries.

Read more
Advice

How to choose a pair of running shoes

Podiatrist Rick Osler explains how to choose the best running shoes for your needs

Read more
Advice

Protect your eyes on the run

All you need to know about protecting your eyes as you clock up the kilometres.

Read more
Community

6 steps to becoming a morning runner

Here's how to start a morning running routine and smash your workout before your day even begins.

Read more
Community

Your guide to running to work

It's not as crazy as it sounds – you can become someone who runs to work. Here's how to get started.

Read more
Advice

Acupuncture for sports training

Chinese medicine practitioner explains how acupuncture can benefit your running and training

Read more
Community

5 training tips from Olympic marathoner Jess Trengove

How does an Olympic runner prepare for a race? Jess shares how she works towards her personal best.

Read more
Advice

Nine tips for bouncing back after exercise

Exercise can hurt, not just during a session but also for several days afterwards.

Read more
Advice

Stretching for runners

There is lots of conflicting information on stretching. Learn how to stretch for better results.

Read more
Lifestyle

Four must-read books for every runner

Part education, part biography, part inspiration - these books will get you running.

Read more
Lifestyle

Memorable fun runs

We ask Medibank members and Olympic athletes about their most memorable fun runs.

Read more
Lifestyle

Top training runs in Melbourne

With lush parks, mountains and coastline, the Melbourne area offers some great training runs.

Read more

For full functionality of this site it is necessary to enable JavaScript. Here are instructions on how to enable JavaScript in your web browser.