The First X-ray, 1895

The discovery of a new and mysterious form of radiation in the late 19th century led to a revolution in medical imaging.

By | July 1, 2011

Wilhelm Rontgen took this radiograph of his wife's left hand on December 22, 1895, shortly after his discovery of X-rays. NATIONAL LIBRARY OF MEDICINE

At the end of the 19th century, while studying the effects of passing an electrical current through gases at low pressure, German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen accidentally discovered X-rays—highly energetic electromagnetic radiation capable of penetrating most solid objects. His discovery transformed medicine almost overnight. Within a year, the first radiology department opened in a Glasgow hospital, and the department head produced the first pictures of a kidney stone and a penny lodged in a child’s throat. Shortly after, an American physiologist used X-rays to trace food making its way through the digestive system. The public also embraced the new technology—even carnival barkers touted the wondrous rays that allowed viewing of one’s own skeleton.

Although Röntgen’s lab records were burned at his request when he died, many people have speculated about the sequence of events leading to his discovery. In November 1895, according to one popular account, Röntgen was experimenting with an electron-discharge tube, which he had covered with black cardboard to block the distracting glow caused by electrons striking the tube’s glass walls. To his surprise, he noticed out of the corner of his eye that a fluorescent screen more than a meter away was also glowing. Röntgen dubbed these mysterious rays capable of passing through glass “X” (for unknown) and subsequently tried to block them with a variety of materials—aluminum, copper, even the walls of his lab—to no avail.

When Röntgen held a piece of lead in front of the electron-discharge tube, it blocked the rays, but he was shocked to see his own flesh glowing around his bones on the fluorescent screen behind his hand. He then placed photographic film between his hand and the screen and captured the world’s first X-ray image. Six weeks later, at the close of 1895, he published his observations and mailed his colleagues a photograph of the bones of his wife’s hand, showing her wedding ring on her fourth finger.

More than 100 years after Röntgen’s first X-ray experiments, Gerrit Kemerink, a medical physicist at the Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands, discovered an X-ray machine from the 1890s very similar to Röntgen’s original and used it to X-ray a hand specimen from his hospital. He found that to acquire the image, the hand received a radiation dose 1,500 times greater than today’s dosage—which explains why many people who were X-rayed or who worked with the original machines suffered from radiation burns and loss of hair. There was also a marked difference in the exposure time required: it took Kemerink 90 minutes to image the hand using the 19th century machine, compared to 20 milliseconds using modern X-ray machines. "How you could keep still, I don't know!" Kemerink says.

Add a Comment

Avatar of: You



Sign In with your LabX Media Group Passport to leave a comment

Not a member? Register Now!

LabX Media Group Passport Logo


Avatar of:

Posts: 0

July 26, 2011

According to his son, Dr. Skoda Afonso from Goa, who worked with me in the University of Wisconsin Cardiovascular Research Laboratory his father travelled to work with Dr. Roentgen in 1896-97. He later became blind presumably from x-ray exposure. Unfortunately, Dr. Skoda is dead and further information from this source is unavailable.

Avatar of: WrenchGuy


Posts: 5

December 22, 2015

Great story on the X- rays.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh  Nellore(AP),India


Avatar of: Messi


Posts: 1

April 19, 2016

I would like you to tell us in this site, Why? How? How does it work? And What changes did it make to the world

Good Job! :D  : )

Avatar of: someone strange

someone strange

Posts: 1

February 21, 2017

what about mihajlo idvorski pupin?

Popular Now

  1. Secret Eugenics Conference Uncovered at University College London
  2. Like Humans, Walruses and Bats Cuddle Infants on Their Left Sides
  3. How Do Infant Immune Systems Learn to Tolerate Gut Bacteria?
  4. Scientists Continue to Use Outdated Methods