Wilhelm Roentgen and the Discovery of X-rays – A Short Story

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Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen was born in Lennep in the year 1845. It was a part of Prussia- Germany. His father worked as a cloth merchant in Lennep.

Roentgen was a lover of nature. And he used to roam here and there in the forest. He was not brilliant but a mediocre student in the school.

There is an amusing story about his school life.

At the time of lectures during school hours, he & his friend were making a sketch (caricature) of their teacher. The teacher noticed & asked who made the sketch. He denied giving the name of his friend. Thus, they cancelled his admission to the school.

It was shocking news for his parents.

Hence, they admitted him to a polytechnic institute to study mechanical engineering.

Afterwards, he obtained his Ph.D. degree from Zurich University. Thus, he became a scientist.

Roentgen married Anna Bertha in 1872. But they had no children. Hence, they adopted a child girl. This child was the daughter of Mrs. Roentgen’s brother.

Accidental discovery of X-rays

The year was 1895. Roentgen was carrying out some experiments in his laboratory. He was working on the cathode ray discharge tube.

He had a glass tube which occupied a gas (Inert). There were two metal plates–anode (metal) and a cathode- at the end of the tube. He applied an electric charge through the anode and cathode. It was to study the rays that were emitted.

Hence, he covered the tube so that no radiation came out. But, accidentally, he found that a piece of paper lying on his table was shining in the dark. The paper cardboard was of barium platinocyanide.

He thought it must be because of some radiation emitting from the tube and striking with barium platinocyanide.

Roentgen observed that these rays are emitted at the anode and the cathode rays are confined to the discharge tube.

Therefore, he named this radiation as X-Ray. Here, X means unknown.

Roentgen started working towards this problem. Thus, he remained in the lab for days, where he had his meals in the lab and even slept there.

Some people say there was a book lying on his table which contained a photographic plate. Later, when he used it in his camera & developed it, he found an image of the key on the plate. He found a key embedded in the book.

He continued further and performed more experiments to confirm the nature of the unknown rays.

He held a lead disk in his hand and allowed the X-rays to pass through it. He observed the image of the disk on the photographic plate. But he also found the image of his finger bones holding the disk.

Thus, he confirmed- that these rays can penetrate a millimetre-thick piece of lead and must have a shorter wavelength and higher energy.

His concluding experiment was to record the radiograph of one hand of his wife. It was the first radiograph ever recorded. The image was showing the bones and the ring she was wearing.

Within one year, they used the X-rays for the diagnosis- in the hospitals. The benefit was one can see the structure of the body without operation.

For the first time, they diagnosed a child who swallowed a penny in his throat, a needle embedded in a woman’s hand, the place of a bullet struck in a soldier’s body and kidney stones in the human body.

Because of the number of applications of X-rays, they awarded him the Nobel Prize in physics in 1901. However, he donated the prize money to his university & he said, ‘Every discovery belongs to the whole community.’

Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen died when he was 77 in 1923 in Munich.

Read more at https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1901/rontgen/facts/

The wavelength of X-rays ranges from 0.01-10 nm, whereas cosmic rays have a smaller wavelength of less than 0.01nm. UV ranges from 10 nm to 400nm, visible from 400 to 700 and IR from 700nm to 1.0mm. Watch the following video https://youtu.be/KEASC8UVAmM 

Recent research developments

Recent developments show scientists have taken the X-ray image of a single atom. This indicates the nuclear core and electrons around it. The credit goes to the scientists from Ohio University, Argonne National Laboratory, and the University of Illinois-Chikago.


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