Who discovered the essay

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen X-rays and the most radiant coincidence in medicine


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He was experimenting in the dark and suddenly saw the bones in his hand. On November 8, 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen accidentally discovered X-rays in Würzburg. In doing so, he not only revolutionized medicine 125 years ago.

As of: December 22nd, 2020

On November 8, 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was still experimenting late in the evening in his laboratory in the former Physics Institute of the University of Würzburg. He is interested in the electrical charges in a cathode tube, a glass tube that is almost empty of air. The light in the tube weakly illuminates the room. Because X-rays interfere with this, he wraps the tube in black cardboard. Suddenly a fluorescent screen further away lights up. As he continues to experiment, his hand gets between the cathode tube and the fluorescent screen - and Röntgen looks directly at the shadows of his hand bones. This is roughly how the discovery of the rays, which Röntgen called "X-rays", is said to have happened.

"Nobody knows how it really happened."

Roland Weigand, X-ray Board of Trustees, Würzburg

The discovery and origin of X-rays

Replica of a historical X-ray tube from 1896 for medical applications

In fact, the discovery of X-rays can only be roughly reconstructed. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen ordered in his will that all his records - except for the published articles - be destroyed after his death. The phenomenon can be explained as follows: X-rays generated a strong voltage between two metal plates in its gas discharge tube. So he accelerated electrons that race from the cathode, the negative pole, to the anode, the positive pole. When they hit the anode, the electrons were slowed down. Part of the energy was released in the form of electromagnetic radiation. "And if that takes place in this kilovolt range, then it's X-rays," explains Johannes-Geert Hagmann from the Deutsches Museum in Munich. The radiation penetrated the glass and the cardboard cover and caused the molecules in the fluorescent screen to glow. The bones blocked the radiation.

"I hadn't told anyone about my work: I just told my wife that I was doing something that, if people found out, would say: 'The X-ray must have gone crazy'."

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (Source: roentgen2020.de)

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen sleeps in the laboratory in Würzburg

Original laboratory of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen in Würzburg

After these first, rather accidental observations, Röntgen continued his research tirelessly. The discovery of the unknown rays captivated him so much that he locked himself in his laboratory for six weeks and hardly ever left it.

"Roentgen characterizes what happened in the weeks after this discovery pretty well."

Roland Weigand, X-ray Board of Trustees, Würzburg

The world's most famous X-ray from December 22nd, 1895: Bertha Röntgen's hand.

"He had the food brought there, and he is even said to have set up a bed in the laboratory - even though, as the head of the institute, he lived just one floor up with his wife Bertha," says Roland Weigand. "But even this short way was too far for him, he could not detach himself from the rays." On December 22, 1895, his wife Bertha had to serve for an experiment: Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen x-rayed her hand - the image was later to become the most famous X-ray image in the world. But probably not the oldest - it's just the oldest that has been published and is really documented in time.
After his conscientious studies, Roentgen published his famous article "On a New Kind of Rays" in late 1895. Society was fascinated by the new ways of looking inside: X-rays became the talk of the day, the subject of revues and novels - and an icon of science. Because cathode tubes were used in many research institutions at the time, the spectacular results were quickly confirmed internationally.

"It went around the world like wildfire."

Alfred Forchel, President of the University of Würzburg

The world in X-ray fever

Because Röntgen did not patent his discovery, X-ray machines quickly became fashionable in many places. The possibility of looking into the body and objects was too tempting. X-rays were soon not only used for medical purposes, but also, for example, in the shoe store to see whether the feet really fit well into the new shoes. In 1901 Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery. He modestly waived the prize money and donated it to the University of Würzburg. As early as 1905, the congress of the Roentgen Association in Berlin said: "In this perfected way, the X-rays have [...] become an irreplaceable and indispensable aid in all special subjects of human medicine." Röntgen's name became a verb.

X-rays and their uses

X-rays are extremely short-wave, high-energy electromagnetic rays that can penetrate materials and thus shine through them. They are not visible to the eye. Bones are easy to see on an X-ray, but soft tissues are not. X-rays are used in medicine, for example, to examine broken bones or serious dental problems. A computer tomography creates a three-dimensional 3D image from thousands of recordings. The structures of small molecules, proteins, proteins or viruses can be measured and displayed with high-intensity X-rays. This can be useful for developing tailor-made drugs or therapies. X-rays can also be used to test materials or analyze the structures of crystals. In art, overpaintings and forgeries can be detected with the help of X-rays. In archeology, they are used to examine finds more closely without damaging them. X-ray telescopes in space help to track down black holes.

X-rays for children explained in pictures

The discovery of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen 125 years ago was a sensation. You can now see the body from the inside with black and white images without cutting it open. When x-rayed, doctors can detect broken bones or, for example, lung diseases such as tuberculosis.

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen - the Nobel Laureate without a high school diploma

When Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895, he was already an esteemed scientist in specialist circles. This almost prevented a failed school career. Röntgen was born on March 27, 1845 in Lennep, today a district of Remscheid. His father was a cloth merchant, the family later moved to the Netherlands. In 1863, Röntgen was thrown out of school in Utrecht without a high school diploma: He is said to have vilified a teacher in a caricature, but he just didn't want to reveal the true author. In 1865, Röntgen went to the Polytechnic University in Zurich, where he could study without a high school diploma. In 1868 he received an "excellent" diploma as a mechanical engineer, as Roland Weigand knows. Röntgen became assistant to the young professor August Kundt, who got him enthusiastic about physics, and received his doctorate in physics in 1869. After completing his habilitation, Röntgen became a private lecturer in 1874 and a professor in Strasbourg in 1876. In 1888 he accepted a position as professor of physics and head of the Physics Institute at the Julius Maximilians University of Würzburg.

"At that time, Würzburg had the best equipped physical institute in Germany, maybe even in Europe."

Roland Weigand, X-ray Board of Trustees, Würzburg

Röntgen - an indefatigable, tireless and dissatisfied researcher

The famous X-ray image of the hand of the anatomist Albert von Kölliker.

Contemporaries described Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen as an introverted owl, as a social phobic, but also as a meticulous researcher and a genius. He was considered extremely indecent, the hype around his person was uncomfortable for him. When he presented his X-rays to the public for the first time in January 1896 after countless experiments, he began his lecture with the words: "I discovered these rays by chance." The idea of ​​naming them after him did not come from Röntgen himself, but from the audience at this lecture. The fact that he was not interested in fame, honor and money, but in science, is evidenced by the fact that he did not have the patent and the Nobel Prize money. As an experimental physicist, he didn't want to be reduced to just this one discovery: "He has written 70 essays, only three of which deal with X-rays," says Roland Weigand.

Original laboratory from Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen preserved

He died on February 10, 1923 in Munich. His former laboratory has been a memorial since 1985 in the current premises of the Würzburg-Schweinfurt University of Applied Sciences. There, the original equipment and furniture still testify to Röntgen's groundbreaking discovery, the X-rays - which, by the way, are still called "x-rays" in America.

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