German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen is usually credited as the discoverer of X-rays in 1895, because he was the first to systematically study them, though he is not the first to have observed their effects. He is also the one who gave them the name "X-rays" (signifying an unknown quantity) though many others referred to these as "Röntgen rays" (and the associated X-ray radiograms as, "Röntgenograms") for several decades after their discovery and even to this day in some languages, including Röntgen's native German.
X-rays were found emanating from Crookes tubes, experimental discharge tubes invented around 1875, by scientists investigating the cathode rays, which are energetic electron beams that were first created in the tubes. Crookes tubes created free electrons by ionization of the residual air in the tube by a high DC voltage of anywhere between a few kilovolts and 100 kV. This voltage accelerated the electrons coming from the cathode to a high enough velocity that they created X-rays when they struck the anode or the glass wall of the tube. Many of the early Crookes tubes undoubtedly radiated X-rays, because early researchers noticed effects that were attributable to them, as detailed below. Wilhelm Röntgen was the first to systematically study them, in 1895.
The discovery of X-rays stimulated a veritable sensation. Röntgen's biographer Otto Glasser estimated that, in 1896 alone, as many as 49 essays and 1044 articles about the new rays were published. This was probably a conservative estimate, if one considers that nearly every paper around the world extensively reported about the new discovery, with a magazine such as Science dedicating as many as 23 articles to it in that year alone. Sensationalist reactions to the new discovery included publications linking the new kind of rays to occult and paranormal theories, such as telepathy.
The earliest experimenter thought to have (unknowingly) produced X-rays was actuary William Morgan. In 1785 he presented a paper to the Royal Society of London describing the effects of passing electrical currents through a partially evacuated glass tube, producing a glow created by X-rays. This work was further explored by Humphry Davy and his assistant Michael Faraday.
In 1877 Ukrainian-born Ivan Pulyui, a lecturer in experimental physics at the University of Vienna, constructed various designs of vacuum discharge tube to investigate their properties. He continued his investigations when appointed professor at the Prague Polytechnic and in 1886 he found that sealed photographic plates became dark when exposed to the emanations from the tubes. Early in 1896, just a few weeks after Röntgen published his first X-ray photograph, Pulyui published high-quality X-ray images in journals in Paris and London. Although Pulyui had studied with Röntgen at the University of Strasbourg in the years 1873–75, his biographer Gaida (1997) asserts that his subsequent research was conducted independently.
Taking an X-ray image with early Crookes tube
apparatus, late 1800s. The Crookes tube is visible in center. The standing man is viewing his hand with a fluoroscope
screen. The seated man is taking a radiograph
of his hand by placing it on a photographic plate
. No precautions against radiation exposure are taken; its hazards were not known at the time.
X-rays were generated and detected by Fernando Sanford (1854–1948), the foundation Professor of Physics at Stanford University, in 1891. From 1886 to 1888 he had studied in the Hermann Helmholtz laboratory in Berlin, where he became familiar with the cathode rays generated in vacuum tubes when a voltage was applied across separate electrodes, as previously studied by Heinrich Hertz and Philipp Lenard. His letter of January 6, 1893 (describing his discovery as "electric photography") to The Physical Review was duly published and an article entitled Without Lens or Light, Photographs Taken With Plate and Object in Darkness appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.
Starting in 1888, Philipp Lenard, a student of Heinrich Hertz, conducted experiments to see whether cathode rays could pass out of the Crookes tube into the air. He built a Crookes tube (later called a "Lenard tube") with a "window" in the end made of thin aluminum, facing the cathode so the cathode rays would strike it. He found that something came through, that would expose photographic plates and cause fluorescence. He measured the penetrating power of these rays through various materials. It has been suggested that at least some of these "Lenard rays" were actually X-rays.
Hermann von Helmholtz formulated mathematical equations for X-rays. He postulated a dispersion theory before Röntgen made his discovery and announcement. It was formed on the basis of the electromagnetic theory of light. However, he did not work with actual X-rays.
In 1894 Nikola Tesla noticed damaged film in his lab that seemed to be associated with Crookes tube experiments and began investigating this radiant energy of "invisible" kinds. After Röntgen identified the X-ray Tesla began making X-ray images of his own using high voltages and tubes of his own design, as well as Crookes tubes.
In November 1896, the inventor Dr. Robert D'Unger proposed a X-Ray telephot, supposed able to make transmission of pictures by telegraph wire.
1896 plaque published in "Nouvelle Iconographie de la Salpetrière"
, a medical journal. In the left a hand deformity, in the right same hand seen using radiography
. The authors designated the technique as Röntgen photography.
On November 8, 1895, German physics professor Wilhelm Röntgen stumbled on X-rays while experimenting with Lenard and Crookes tubes and began studying them. He wrote an initial report "On a new kind of ray: A preliminary communication" and on December 28, 1895 submitted it to Würzburg's Physical-Medical Society journal. This was the first paper written on X-rays. Röntgen referred to the radiation as "X", to indicate that it was an unknown type of radiation. The name stuck, although (over Röntgen's great objections) many of his colleagues suggested calling them Röntgen rays. They are still referred to as such in many languages, including German, Hungarian, Danish, Polish, Swedish, Finnish, Estonian, Russian, Japanese, Dutch,Georgian and Norwegian. Röntgen received the first Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery.
There are conflicting accounts of his discovery because Röntgen had his lab notes burned after his death, but this is a likely reconstruction by his biographers: Röntgen was investigating cathode rays from a Crookes tube which he had wrapped in black cardboard so that the visible light from the tube would not interfere, using a fluorescent screen painted with barium platinocyanide. He noticed a faint green glow from the screen, about 1 meter away. Röntgen realized some invisible rays coming from the tube were passing through the cardboard to make the screen glow. He found they could also pass through books and papers on his desk. Röntgen threw himself into investigating these unknown rays systematically. Two months after his initial discovery, he published his paper.
Röntgen discovered their medical use when he made a picture of his wife's hand on a photographic plate formed due to X-rays. The photograph of his wife's hand was the first photograph of a human body part using X-rays. When she saw the picture, she said "I have seen my death."
Advances in radiology
There was immediate interest from researchers for the X-ray. A. A. Campbell-Swinton and Nikola Tesla were amongst the firsts to test the new discovery. In 1896, Thomas Edison investigated materials' ability to fluoresce when exposed to X-rays, and found that calcium tungstate was the most effective substance. Around March 1896, the fluoroscope he developed became the standard for medical X-ray examinations. Nevertheless, Edison dropped X-ray research around 1903, even before the death of Clarence Madison Dally, one of his glassblowers. Dally had a habit of testing X-ray tubes on his hands, and acquired a cancer in them so tenacious that both arms were amputated in a futile attempt to save his life.
The first use of X-rays under clinical conditions was by John Hall-Edwards in Birmingham, England on 11 January 1896, when he radiographed a needle stuck in the hand of an associate. On February 14, 1896 Hall-Edwards was also the first to use X-rays in a surgical operation. In early 1896, several weeks after Röntgen's discovery, Ivan Romanovich Tarkhanov irradiated frogs and insects with X-rays, concluding that the rays "not only photograph, but also affect the living function".
The first medical X-ray made in the United States was obtained using a discharge tube of Pulyui's design. In January 1896, on reading of Röntgen's discovery, Frank Austin of Dartmouth College tested all of the discharge tubes in the physics laboratory and found that only the Pulyui tube produced X-rays. This was a result of Pulyui's inclusion of an oblique "target" of mica, used for holding samples of fluorescent material, within the tube. On 3 February 1896 Gilman Frost, professor of medicine at the college, and his brother Edwin Frost, professor of physics, exposed the wrist of Eddie McCarthy, whom Gilman had treated some weeks earlier for a fracture, to the X-rays and collected the resulting image of the broken bone on gelatin photographic plates obtained from Howard Langill, a local photographer also interested in Röntgen's work.
In 1901, U.S. President William McKinley was shot twice in an assassination attempt. While one bullet only grazed his sternum, another had lodged somewhere deep inside his abdomen and could not be found. A worried McKinley aide sent word to inventor Thomas Edison to rush an X-ray machine to Buffalo to find the stray bullet. It arrived but wasn't used. While the shooting itself had not been lethal, gangrene had developed along the path of the bullet, and McKinley died of septic shock due to bacterial infection six days later.
With the widespread experimentation with x‑rays after their discovery in 1895 by scientists, physicians, and inventors came many stories of burns, hair loss, and worse in technical journals of the time. In February 1896, Professor John Daniel and Dr. William Lofland Dudley of Vanderbilt University reported hair loss after Dr. Dudley was X-rayed. A child who had been shot in the head was brought to the Vanderbilt laboratory in 1896. Before trying to find the bullet an experiment was attempted, for which Dudley "with his characteristic devotion to science" volunteered. Daniel reported that 21 days after taking a picture of Dudley's skull (with an exposure time of one hour), he noticed a bald spot 2 inches (5.1 cm) in diameter on the part of his head nearest the X-ray tube: "A plate holder with the plates towards the side of the skull was fastened and a coin placed between the skull and the head. The tube was fastened at the other side at a distance of one-half inch from the hair."
In August 1896 Dr. HD. Hawks, a graduate of Columbia College, suffered severe hand and chest burns from an x-ray demonstration. It was reported in Electrical Review and led to many other reports of problems associated with x-rays being sent in to the publication. Many experimenters including Elihu Thomson at Edison's lab, William J. Morton, and Nikola Tesla also reported burns. Elihu Thomson deliberately exposed a finger to an x-ray tube over a period of time and suffered pain, swelling, and blistering. Other effects were sometimes blamed for the damage including ultraviolet rays and (according to Tesla) ozone. Many physicians claimed there were no effects from X-ray exposure at all. On August 3, 1905 at San Francisco, California, Elizabeth Fleischman, American woman X-ray pioneer, died from complications as a result of her work with X-rays.
20th century and beyond
A patient being examined with a thoracic fluoroscope
in 1940, which displayed continuous moving images. This image was used to argue that radiation exposure
during the X-ray procedure would be negligible.
The many applications of X-rays immediately generated enormous interest. Workshops began making specialized versions of Crookes tubes for generating X-rays and these first-generation cold cathode or Crookes X-ray tubes were used until about 1920.
Crookes tubes were unreliable. They had to contain a small quantity of gas (invariably air) as a current will not flow in such a tube if they are fully evacuated. However, as time passed, the X-rays caused the glass to absorb the gas, causing the tube to generate "harder" X-rays until it soon stopped operating. Larger and more frequently used tubes were provided with devices for restoring the air, known as "softeners". These often took the form of a small side tube which contained a small piece of mica, a mineral that traps relatively large quantities of air within its structure. A small electrical heater heated the mica, causing it to release a small amount of air, thus restoring the tube's efficiency. However, the mica had a limited life, and the restoration process was difficult to control.
In 1904, John Ambrose Fleming invented the thermionic diode, the first kind of vacuum tube. This used a hot cathode that caused an electric current to flow in a vacuum. This idea was quickly applied to X-ray tubes, and hence heated-cathode X-ray tubes, called "Coolidge tubes", completely replaced the troublesome cold cathode tubes by about 1920.
In about 1906, the physicist Charles Barkla discovered that X-rays could be scattered by gases, and that each element had a characteristic X-ray spectrum. He won the 1917 Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery.
In 1912, Max von Laue, Paul Knipping, and Walter Friedrich first observed the diffraction of X-rays by crystals. This discovery, along with the early work of Paul Peter Ewald, William Henry Bragg, and William Lawrence Bragg, gave birth to the field of X-ray crystallography.
The Coolidge X-ray tube was invented during the following year by William D. Coolidge. It made possible the continuous emissions of X-rays. X-ray tubes similar to this are still in use in 2012.
Chandra's image of the galaxy cluster Abell 2125 reveals a complex of several massive multimillion-degree-Celsius gas clouds in the process of merging.
The use of X-rays for medical purposes (which developed into the field of radiation therapy) was pioneered by Major John Hall-Edwards in Birmingham, England. Then in 1908, he had to have his left arm amputated because of the spread of X-ray dermatitis on his arm.
In 1914 Marie Curie developed radiological cars to support soldiers injured in World War I. The cars would allow for rapid X-ray imaging of wounded soldiers so battlefield surgeons could quickly and more accurately operate.
From the 1920s through to the 1950s, x-ray machines were developed to assist in the fitting of shoes and were sold to commercial shoe stores. Concerns regarding the impact of frequent or poorly controlled use were expressed in the 1950s, leading to the practise's eventual end that decade.
The X-ray microscope was developed during the 1950s.
The Chandra X-ray Observatory, launched on July 23, 1999, has been allowing the exploration of the very violent processes in the universe which produce X-rays. Unlike visible light, which gives a relatively stable view of the universe, the X-ray universe is unstable. It features stars being torn apart by black holes, galactic collisions, and novae, and neutron stars that build up layers of plasma that then explode into space.
An X-ray laser device was proposed as part of the Reagan Administration's Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s, but the only test of the device (a sort of laser "blaster" or death ray, powered by a thermonuclear explosion) gave inconclusive results. For technical and political reasons, the overall project (including the X-ray laser) was de-funded (though was later revived by the second Bush Administration as National Missile Defense using different technologies).
Dog hip xray posterior view
Phase-contrast x-ray image of spider
Phase-contrast X-ray imaging refers to a variety of techniques that use phase information of a coherent x-ray beam to image soft tissues. It has become an important method for visualizing cellular and histological structures in a wide range of biological and medical studies. There are several technologies being used for x-ray phase-contrast imaging, all utilizing different principles to convert phase variations in the x-rays emerging from an object into intensity variations. These include propagation-based phase contrast, talbot interferometry, refraction-enhanced imaging, and x-ray interferometry. These methods provide higher contrast compared to normal absorption-contrast x-ray imaging, making it possible to see smaller details. A disadvantage is that these methods require more sophisticated equipment, such as synchrotron or microfocus x-ray sources, X-ray optics, and high resolution x-ray detectors.