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History and Development of X-Rays Expository Essay

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Updated: May 12th, 2020


Professor Roentgen’s discovery of X-Ray in 1895 was a very big step in the field of medicine since it was the beginning of a long and interesting journey in the study of radiation. Doctors used to treat on assumption depending on the symptoms, or had to perform surgery without a surelity of what they were looking for. For the first time in history, the medical professionals were able to view the inner operations of the body without having to perform any operation on the flesh.

Roentgen took the first X-ray image on when he first made this discovery as he was trying to measure the ability of lead to block these rays. He held a piece of lead between his thumb and index finger and placed them on the path of X-rays, and instead of blocking the rays, he realized that he could see some numbers which were on the screen and he could also distinguish his bones from the flesh; ideally, Roentgen printed this image on a photographic plate (Frankel, 1996, pg 498).

Roentgen was a professor of physics in Worzburg when he discovered that through electromagnetic radiation, it was possible to create X-rays. At this time, he was exploring the path that electrical rays took through a vacuum of a glass tube from an inducted coil.

In one scenario, he had covered this kind of a glass tube with a black paper and placed it in a completely dark room and he realized some luminous fluorescence light that penetrated several opaque objects including his own hand. He later used a photographic plate and was able to have an image of the human body showing the components clearly (British Library, 2010).

Roentgens discovery was the first of its type and a unique one up to date. It took most researchers into a task of confirmation, and many experiments were carried out throughout the world on this new discovery. Most medical practitioners embraced this new technology with excitement since it was a step forward in their medical field. It came at the peak of World War 1 and Boar war and it was extensively used to locate fractures ad bullets in the soldiers involved in the war.

Dr John Macintyre of Glasgow Royal Infirmary used X-rays in a number of occasions. For instance, he was able to locate a penny in a child’s throat and took an image of a kidney stone. The first medical doctor to use X-ray was Dr Hall-Edwards who located a needle inside a lady’s arm (British library, 2010, Chodos and Ouellette, 2010).

Experiments and methodology that lead to the discovery of X-Ray

Professor Roentgen presented his first X-ray photographs in 1895 to the Physical society of Berlin. These photographs were obtained by passing an electrical discharge through a vacuum bulb, a process that lead to the emission of radiation.

In one way, this radiation was like light in since it had an effect on the photographic plate but on the other hand, the radiation was invisible unlike light. This radiation could also pass through opaque substances like human body, wood, leather, where light could not pass through (Millikan, 2010, pg 481, The Cathode Ray Tube Site, 2010).

This discovery and the photographs of a living human skeleton stirred up the world at this time since this was beyond the expectation of most scientists since X-ray was a very strange quantity to them. Within a fortnight, almost all scientists halted their ongoing researches and started experimenting on Roentgen’s new discovery.

These experiments showed that when electrical discharges were passed through an exhausted bulb, it emitted X-rays, which were identified by a glowing greenish-yellow, fluorescent light. The results were still ambiguous since for a long time, it was known that there were some natural minerals, which possessed this property. For instance, when electrical discharges were passed through mineral Uranium and its compounds in a vacuum, or when exposed to ultra violet rays of the sun, they emitted the greenish yellow light.

This was another challenge to perform more research and experiments in order to get the concept behind uranium and its compounds. Further experiments showed that uranium had effects on opaque materials just like Roentgens discovery without necessarily exposing it to sunlight (Millikan, 2010, pg 481).

Roentgen performed his experiment that lead to the discovery of X-ray in a vacuum. He completely covered a Lenard tube with cardboard and foil to create a vacuum in order to make sure that no visible light escaped the tube. The Lenard tube had a small screen coated with a fluorescent material called barium platinocyanide. He placed this coated screen close to the window of the tube and passed cathode rays through it. Roentgen noticed that this resulted in to emission of a glowing greenish yellow fluorescent light (Frankel, 1996).

Professor Roentgen had performed many experiments earlier on and he had confirmed that when current was passed through Hittorf and Crookes tubes, they produced light. This made him carry out an experiment with these tubes to find out whether this light could be cathode rays that caused fluorescence in his experiment with Leonard tube.

Hittorf and Crookes tubes were luminous, and this would have obscured the fluorescence during his experiment. To curb this problem and to ensure that no light passed through, he completely covered a Crooke’s tube with cardboard. As he was preparing to pass cathode rays through the barium platinocyanide screen, he realized some faint green light shining on the surface he was working on. This was absurd because this fluorescent light was only because of cathode rays.

He therefore decided to repeat the experiment and realized that the intensity of green light varied depending on the varying intensity of the electric current. Roentgen discovered that this faint green light was being emitted by the barium platinocyanide coated screen that was lying on the bench regardless of the distance between the screen and the tube. This made him realize that apart from cathode rays, there was another cause of fluorescence (Frankel, 1996).

After that latter experiment, Roentgen was very curious to discover more about this new cause of fluorescence. He therefore extended and diversified his experiments to clarify this discovery. With time, he realized that they were rays because they were moving on a straight line and could create shadows as ordinary rays could do.

The most peculiar thing about these rays was that they could penetrate even opaque materials such as metal and wood apart from a few like lead. He named them X-rays and he took an image of his thumb and index finger using a photographic plate instead of barium pent cyanide coated screen, which was his first X-ray image (Frankel, 1996).

Proffesor Roentgen took a few weeks after his discovery to perfect his work before publicizing it and he later on announced his discovery of a new kind of ray to Physikalisch-Medizinische Gesellschaft in Wurzburg.

Within a week, news were already in the press which appeared this way “The surgeon could then determine the extent of a complicated bone fracture without the manual examination which is so painful to the patient: he could find the position of a foreign body such as a bullet or a piece of shell much more easily than has been possible heretofore and without any painful examinations with a probe.”

Appraisal to Roentgens work

Immediately Roentgen publicized his achievement, news spread rapidly and many medical practitioners and patients were happy that their tasks were made easier. Doctors and surgeons started employing this new technology immediately. All over a sudden, Roentgen became an icon, regardless of his humble background and his average education status.

His friends and workmates proposed to call the new ray Roentgen ray but he objected, though the name somehow took root only to be overcome by X-ray (NASA, 2007). Roentgens discovery continues to be celebrated even today, more than century after his work.

Criticism to Roentgens discovery

Roentgen discovered X-ray at the age of fifty at a time when he was a senior lecturer in physics. At this time, physicists complacentlyhad settled with the fact that very negligible discoveries had remained in the field of physical science thus, they were trying to improve on the existing discoveries. Roentgen avoided to exposing himself and reacted exaggeratedly to any kind of criticism. Immediately after his celebration, he wrote to some of his friends telling them that he had received some critics but he cared less (Glasser, 2010).

The effects of X-ray were evident soon after Roentgen discovery and this blame went to him for failing to come up with the economic importance of the same after his discovery. By May 1896, strange symptoms were noted on the people who were first exposed to X-ray. They included, cancer, hair loss, skin toxicity that triggered the need for standardizing use of X-ray (Frankel, 1996, pg 500).

Other reasons for criticism resulted from the fact that other scientists and researcher had made such observation as Roentgen but never had a second thought on the importance of the same. Lenard was among them, and he was at first supportive to Roentgen but withdrew and even opposed his work after Roentgen failed to acknowledge his support. Other critics claimed that Roentgen discovery was accidental and was probably some work of some of his assistants.


Uses of X-ray began immediately after its discovery. An American Physiologist to identify the path of a Barium Sulphate in an animal digestive canal. Doctors applied it to locate fractured bones and objects like needle, bullets in human body, and any kind of malignant growths.

Today it is widely used in Radiotherapy to destroy cancerous cells in human body. X-ray is also used in security checkups at the airport and other places. In education, it is used in biological and physical sciences during experiments, in tire inspection, in cameras, in dentistry among others. X-ray discovery and its application was appreciated and employed immediately due to its efficiency and lowered cost and it is widely used even today (Medical discoveries, 2010, Frankel, 1996).


British Library. (2010). Roentgen’s discovery of the x-ray. British Library Board. Web.

Chodos, A. and Ouellette, J. (2010).. American Physical Society. Web.

Frankel, R. (1996). . Hawaii, University of Hawaii. Web.

Glasser, O. (2010). Radiology. The Radiological Society of North America. Web.

Medical discoveries. (2010). . Web.

Millikan, R. A. (2010). . CA: University of Chicago. Web.

NASA. (2007). Wilhelm Conrad Röentgen. Web.

The Cathode Ray Tube Site. (2010). X-ray tubes. Web.

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