Gallery: Early days of the X-ray
Image credit: Getty Images
Discovered at the end of the Victorian era, it took a mere few weeks for X-rays to leave the lab and enter medicine and industry.
In 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (1845-1923), professor of physics at the University of Wurzburg, discovered a previously unknown type of radiation that was capable of penetrating matter.
Röntgen was conducting experiments with a Crookes’ tube – an early type of cathode ray tube. This was a glass bulb containing electrodes at each end. After the air in the tube was emptied and a high voltage was applied, streams of electrons (cathode rays) were emitted from the negative electrode and the tube produced a fluorescent glow.
He shielded the tube with heavy black paper, but was surprised to notice green light coming from a fluorescent screen some distance away. Convinced that his tube covering was light-tight, he theorised that the screen was responding to some new kind of radiation that could penetrate the paper, and began a series of further experiments to test his idea. He soon found that these unknown ‘X-rays’ could pass through many substances, including human tissue, but not bones or metal objects.
After Röntgen’s results were published, other scientists were eager to replicate his findings, as the cathode ray tube was well known by then and a number of medical radiographs were made in Europe and the US within a matter of weeks.
Ruth Hurschler, candidate in the ‘Perfect Back’ contest, is being examined and X-rayed by Dr Howell, chiropractor, in the final stage of the competition, circa 1930 in Los Angeles, California.
Radiograph of a hand, taken by Röntgen in Wurzburg, Germany. The X-ray caused a sensation when it was discovered in 1895 and Röntgen was awarded the first Nobel Prize for physics in 1901.
Dr Edward C Jerman, known as the father of the X-ray technique, standing next to the earliest type of X-ray apparatus (1896).
An early method of testing the output of X-rays was observing the appearance of a hand through a fluoroscope.
An undated image illustrating radiation treatment from a mobile X-ray machine, which was useful in treating patients too ill to move from their beds.
An early US Army X-Ray truck. In June 1896, only six months after Roentgen announced his discovery, X-rays were used by battlefield physicians to find bullets in wounded soldiers.
A patient receives radiology in France in 1900. Another form of penetrating rays was discovered in 1896 when French scientist Henri Becquerel discovered natural radioactivity; one of the minerals Becquerel worked with was uranium compound. The Curies found radium, which became an industrial gamma ray source.
A woman inside an ambulance equipped to carry out X-rays, 1920. X-rays were not used in industrial application before 1912 as X-ray tubes broke down under the voltages required for satisfactory penetrating power. In 1913, US inventor William Coolidge designed high-vacuum X-ray tubes, a reliable X-ray source, operating at up to 100,000 volts.
A young Parisian woman undergoing an X-ray radiology exam at the Radiology Institute of Paris, 1930. Many professionals and laymen used X-ray-generating apparatus with a lack of concern for potential dangers.
US Army Medical Corps using a portable machine to locate bullets in a soldier’s body, 1943. Unrestrained use of X-rays led to injuries, which were often not attributed to X-ray exposure due to slow onset of symptoms.
A patient lies on the X-ray table as radiotherapists prepare to use the mobile X-ray machine. Possible adverse effects of X-rays first came from Thomas Edison, William J Morton and Nikola Tesla, who reported eye irritations.
X-ray studies were televised and recorded for repeated viewings with the ‘Televex’ X-ray system developed by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Here it is being demonstrated on an eight-year-old patient.
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