William Conrad Roentgen - Photo

William Conrad Roentgen - Photo Disasters Famous Historical Events Medicine Nineteenth Century Life STEM Famous People Visual Arts

Wilhelm Conrad (Konrad) Roentgen (1845-1923) and his wife (Anna Bertha Roentgen) lived upstairs from the Physics Institute at the University of Wurzburg. 

It was a perfect arrangement since Wilhelm, a physicist, liked to work late.

In November of 1895, Roentgen was experimenting in his lab when he made an incredible discovery.  We learn more about the actual event from Julie M. Fenster's book, Mavericks, Miracles, and Medicine:

One Friday afternoon in November of 1895, Roentgen was experimenting with the effect of cathode rays on fluorescent materials - specifically, a screen that he had painted with a barium compound ... Roentgen had another idea, wondering whether a Crookes tube would produce the same effect if its all-glass body were likewise covered up...

As Roentgen fussed over the tube and its upholstery, the barium screen was sitting on the table a few feet away; he planned to  bring it closer when he was ready for it ... Turning off the lights in the room, he tested the covering  by turning on the coil that sent electricity through the tube.  The cover seemed to work; he couldn't detect any light escaping from the tube.  But just as he was about to turn the current off and bring the barium screen closer for the real experiment, he noticed a green blob at the end of the table.

That "green blob" was about to help Roentgen change the world.

On closer inspection, the blob turned out to be a small section of the barium screen, set aglow by a ray from the tube.  That wasn't supposed to happen.  The screen was supposed to be only inches away in order for a ray to reach it. 

Apparently, the ray coming out of the shrouded Crookes tube could travel - it could reach all the way across the room.

Experimenting with his discovery, over the following weeks, Roentgen wondered whether the mysterious ray could pass through objects:

...Then he did a very simple but dramatic thing:  He held up a piece of paper.  Putting it in between the Crookes tube and the barium screen, he noticed that the ray was unhindered, continuing to activate the fluorescent paint as though the paper weren't even there. 

Roentgen tried a playing card, a piece of metal and a book - the ray penetrated each one, though it was at least dimmed by the book.

As he continued to see what the rays could - or could not - pass through, Wilhelm Roentgen did something which led to a revolution in medicine:

...Roentgen held up a small lead disc.  It stopped the ray entirely, leaving the screen with a shadow in its shape.  Beside it, though, he saw the image of his fingers, with the bones clearly discernible.  Roentgen never left any record of his thoughts at that moment. 

To further test his discovery, Roentgen turned to photography:

Knowing that the fluorescent effect of cathode rays could be captured on photographic plates, Roentgen decided to test the new ray in the same way.  Successful with inanimate objects, he wanted to try an entirely animate object, and chose [his wife] Anna's hand as his first subject. 

While she held her hand still for fifteen minutes, the ray was projected at it - and through it - to a photographic plate.  The result was a picture of the bones that made up  her hand, with silhouettes where her two rings blocked the ray entirely.  Nothing of the sort had ever been seen before.  (Mavericks, Miracles, and Medicine: The Pioneers Who Risked Their Lives to Bring Medicine into the Modern Age, by Julie M. Fenster, pp 26-28.)

Wilhelm Roentgen's discovery changed not just the world of medicine but many other fields as well.  He was awarded the Noble Prize for Physics, in 1901.

Media Credits

Image online, courtesy Library of Congress.  PD

Quoted passages from Mavericks, Miracles, and Medicine, by Julie Fenster, as noted above.


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