Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen

He influenced the work of men like Nikola Tesla, the true inventor of the radio. He inspired women
like Marie Curie, the world's most famous scientist, to use his discoveries for the greater good of science. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (it can also be spelled Roentgen) was a Prussian (German) physicist most famous for being the first person to take x-ray photographs. He was credited to be the man that discovered these rays of electromagnetic radiation in the first place, and that is why X-rays can also be formerly known as Röntgen radiation. In addition, the unit that is used to measure these rays, roentgen, is named after him as well. [³] This is what made him the first person ever to receive a Nobel Prize in the area of Physics for this type of work. However, he also studied in the areas of elasticity, specific heats in gases and crystals, piezoelectricity, and much more. [¹] Without his main interest in the unique radiation of x-rays and fluorescence, however, medical science today would not be. It would be nearly impossible to determine fractures in a bone or discover signs of pneumonia by examining x-rays of the lungs, or even get proper dental health care because there would not be a way to clearly look at one's teeth in their skull and determine what needs to be fixed. Overall, his serendipitous discovery of how specific things could reflect to light due to unknown radiation (hence the term X-rays) may have very well saved millions of lives and time on our Earth today.

Insight and Influences

Image courtesy of Medcyclopaedia
Image courtesy of Medcyclopaedia
Born in Lennep, Prussia on Thursday, March 27th, 1845, Röntgen was born to a family consisting of a reserved, amiable farmer of a father and a mother of a modest and simple lifestyle. Being an only child, his parents' characteristics heavily influenced him through his early years, keeping him happy and simple-minded even as he was surrounded by early European revolution (inspired by the French Revolution that began in 1848) during his childhood. [²] During that time, Prussia was considered one of many German states that, along with others, was to "be returned to the restored German Confederation". [] Since there was much chaos, Röntgen’s family sold their house and they emigrated to Apeldoorn, located in The Netherlands. The main reason for this was that his mother was of Dutch origin, and they felt it would be safe there. He went into a private boarding school in Apeldoorn shortly after finishing primary school and ultimately got expelled due to a childish prank he may not have been at fault for.
The story goes that one of Wilhelm's classmates had drawn a cartoon of their teacher on the firescreen, and the teacher was angered by it upon discovering it. The teacher furiously asked Röntgen to name the culprit, and when Wilhelm did not do as he was asked, he was quickly expelled from the school. [³] Regardless, he continued with his studies at home as advised by some of his father's friends, so he could prepare himself for the examination he would have to take to get into a university. Sadly, one of the people who examined him during one of these tests was one of the faculty members that had expelled him, and he was turned away. []

Later in 1862, however, he enrolled at the Utrech Technical School, which was a private area that prepared students for a tech high school. The school did this by offering the kids to take a two-year course. Three years later, Röntgen became enrolled as a visiting student in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Utrech, and in November of that year (1865) he moved to Zürich, Switzerland. Apparently, in the Polytechnic of Zürich, students who lacked a school leaving diploma could be accepted. Röntgen wasted no time in enrolling into the school.

While he was studying in Zürich, he focused on mechanical engineering with successful results. He received a diploma in that area of study, but he decided to eagerly continue his studies. He also began to cooperate with August Kundt, a professor in the area of Physics at only 29 years old. At the young age of 24, Röntgen soon became to be his close assistant in the Department of Experimental Physics. On June 12, 1869, Röntgen received his Ph. D degree from the University of Zürich. Only a year later, Kundt left to be Chair of Physics at the University of Würzburg, and Röntgen followed close behind. [⁵]

Afterwards, he was a professor of Physics at multiple universities. Not only was he at Würzburg, but his progression also led him to Geissen (1879-1888) and Munich
(1900-1920). Würzburg, however, was almost a stopping point for him. According to a Bavarian law of the time, Röntgen was unable to continue with his studies for two main reasons: he lacked a leaving-school certificate, and he lacked sufficient study in these areas (even though Kundt had tried to train him on his behalf as best as he could, it appeared that it was not enough).
However, in 1872, Kundt was invited to the German University of Strassbourg (it is now located in France). Kundt took his assistant with him to the newly-founded university, and they found that this university actually helped Röntgen more with his scientific studies and career. They appointed Röntgen to the title of "Privat- Dozent" and he became a lecturer at this university. []

Major Contributions

Image courtesy of Wired
Image courtesy of Wired

It was in 1895, however, that Röntgen was able to put his years of physics studies into amazing use. When working with a vacuum tube covered in ebony-colored paper whilst he worked in a dark room, he began to study some electrical paths of rays. He did this by placing an induction coil in the tube and allowing the current to run through so he could examine the rays' paths. He watched the rays with curiosity and was amazed to find that, even though everything was dark in the room, one of the screens nearby which contained fluorescent material was glowing, illuminated by these rays. Now truly interested, he began testing to see if other objects could show these same results. Sure enough, he discovered that multiple objects reacted to these rays of light. Later, he wondered: why not put a photographic plate instead of a screen? Upon using a plate instead of the previous screen, he also discovered that skin and bones would react as well, the skin appearing more translucent while the bones appeared a darker shade in the photo that developed. []

Only a year later, the Glasgow Royal Infirmary (one of the very first departments dedicated to radiology) set up an x-ray department. The head of this department used Röntgen’s discovery to start producing more amazing x-rays. One doctor that year even used this new technology to conclude the diagnosis of a needle in a woman's hand- the first doctor ever to do that. Following shortly after that, x-rays began to be used excitedly for other things like the first World War, used eagerly to treat fighting soldiers.

The way that this unknown radiation works, however, is truly remarkable. He was able to serendipitously discover such a fantastic new way of seeing the world, and still today, some cannot quite wrap their head around how this was managed. In reality, the way that x-radiation can be seen on a photograph is not at all that complicated.

In order to understand, one must visualize the electromagnetic spectrum. It shows wavelengths, that much is true, and it is seen in that broad spectrum that as these wavelengths begin to decrease in size, their energy builds. These wavelengths belong to the x-ray category. However, it seems that when spoken of, the wavelengths of x-rays are never truly mentioned.
This is mostly due to two very significant reasons: x-rays' wavelengths are considerably small, and the light "tends to act more like a particle than a wave." []

Now, in order to make it to where one can see the x-rays, these light particles (photons) need to be sent out into some metallic surface for them to appear. Also, they have to be projected in a concentrated beam of light- this way, upon collision, the metallic surface and the projected charged electrons give out an astounding amount of electromagnetic radiation which,
Röntgen discovered, was odd and unknown to him. This is why he nicknamed them x-rays, and much to his dismay, the name stuck.

However, the metallic surface isn't the only thing required. There is also a second sheet, used as a filter, and this sheet is what keeps the rays from scattering and making the final picture blurry. When light is shot through these filters, the clear images of some specific objects can be seen- bones, metals, specific amounts of tissue in a body, etc. [] One must be careful when taking x-rays repeatedly, though. It has been proven that "frequent exposure to x-rays can be harmful". Therefore in today's technology, "special measures are taken" to be absolutely sure that both the patient and doctor will be safe during the x-ray examination. []

Affects and Effects

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen proved to become an influence in many people’s lives, including our very own. Upon the revolutionary discovery of x-rays, thousands around the world began to use the fresh new technology, saving multiple lives and finding hidden diseases that could not have been discovered before. Even Nikola Tesla, one of the world’s most amazing scientists, used this new research to develop a series of pictures using a form of x-radiation of his own design. Although both scientists appeared with their studies around the same era, Tesla did not once claim the design to truly be his. Because of this, Röntgen congratulated him on his achievement with the utmost respect. Tesla later wrote Röntgen’s name on one of his x-ray files. []

Nikola Tesla was not the only one that was affected by the Prussian physicist's work. Two different physicists, both in France during the period of early 1896, took his work and established even more data from it. Henry Bequerel, much like Röntgen
himself, accidentally stumbled upon the fact that something else would give off rays whilst in a dark room. Uranium compounds, he discovered, let off these interesting rays that would end up clouding a photographic plate. The discovery, however, did not gain much attention of the media, who was too focused on Röntgen's marvelous x-rays at the time.
Marie Curie, however, the second French physicist, took Bequerel's work even further. Using a device that her husband and her brother had made 15 years prior, she was able to study the Uranium compounds and how they would send out rays. Eventually, her studies came to the conclusion that yes, Uranium was able to emit radiation regardless of its state, so a hypothesis came into play. She hypothesized that maybe the radiation came from somewhere deeper in the atom, and this shocked the science world, since it had been believed for centuries that the atom was the main part of everything and could not be broken down. Curie strengthened this hypothesis by finding that thorium compounds also emitted these radiations, and in order to describe these behaviors she invented the word radioactivity. [¹¹] Thus, in theory, without Röntgen, we may not have had a clue about the true nature of the atom or a word to describe the emission of rays.

However, his work not only interested scientists but town officials and other societies. Roentgen Street was named after him and he received numerous prizes, medals, and awards. He was the first person ever to win a Nobel Prize in the area of Physics, after all. Not only that, but in 2004, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) named the element of Roentgenium (Rg) after him. [¹⁰]

Röntgen did not share the prizes alone through most of his career. In
1872, he married Anna Bertha Ludwig, having met her at a local café which happened to be run by her father. [²] It was not new that Anna was stepping into a family that would bear a famous name- she was already the cousin of Otto Ludwig, a famous poet of the time. They had no children that would continue their famous legacy, but they did adopt. They adopted Josephine Bertha Ludwig, the 6-year old daughter of Anna's brother. Mrs. Röntgen died in 1919, however.

The Things He Left Behind

Image courtesy of OneShoeDiaries
Image courtesy of OneShoeDiaries
Without the amazing accidental discovery that Wilhelm Röntgen experienced on that early November day, the world today would definitely not be as it is now, especially as far as medical means. Without the discovery of x-rays and how to take photographs of these rays, millions of people could have been falsely diagnosed and died because there would not have been a way to see exactly what was wrong. If somebody came into a dentist's office complaining about a toothache, without x-rays, their assistants would not have been able to completely discover the cause of the pain and correctly diagnose this person, possibly giving them something that may not even help them at all, therefore wasting money and time whilst doing so. On that note, if somebody entered an emergency room with an injured limb, doctors could not see that maybe it was a fractured bone and possibly do something to fix it.

Not only that, but without his work, technology would not have continued to advance and progress so we could be able to make better machinery. After Röntgen's revelation on the topic of x-rays and what one could do with them, the world began to immediately develop more complex equipment. Among some of the things that came along approximately seventy years after his discovery were "higher speed imaging systems, electronic amplification devices, scintillation camera, ultrasonographic (US) devices, advances high capacity x-ray tubes, and rapid film processors."

As decades have gone by, however, our computers and their ability to work with much higher capacity levels have matured. Therefore, these early developments have also given us the ability to create new, useful, life-saving instruments for the medical field. CT scans and MRIs are just two examples of such instruments. [¹²]

He will also be forever known as the first physicist ever to be honored with a Nobel Prize in the area of Physics. None before him had achieved this award, and so now that it was known that one could gain a prize in that area, it inspired multiple generations of physicists and scientists to create work that would be worthy of such an honor. Now inspiring physicists had more of a motivation to continue their research and change the world.

So influentual was he to the world that, in memory of his fabulous work, even his home received quite an honor. His home in Lennep, Prussia was turned into a museum, where visitors can go take a walk through and see the environment in which he grew up in. [¹³]
That is not the only way this humble man gained an impact on the world. People throughout the Earth could still see him, and all they had to do was mail letters. This is because Wilhelm Röntgen's face appeared on a stamp circa the middle 1900s.

Also, in a recent poll held in London, 2009, the x-ray has been noted as one of the most valuable, life-changing inventions of all time, proving just how much this simple discovery could affect the way modern medicine and technology works today. [¹⁴]


1. Wilhelm Röntgen at CrystalLinks
2. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen at Nobelprize
3. Wilhelm Röntgen at Encyclopedia Britannica
4. Prussia (state) at Encyclopedia2
5. W. C. Röntgen at Medcyclopaedia
6. Wilhelm C Röntgen at the British Library Board
7. X-Rays at NASA Official

8. How X-Rays Work at WiseGeek
9. Tesla's Biography at the Tesla Memorial Society of New York
10. Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen at NationMaster
11. Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity
12. Some Recollections in X-Ray Imaging and Therapeutic Radiology at Medical Physics
13. Deutschen Röntgen-Museum
14. The People's Vote on Greatest Inventions at ABC News
15. Picture at Medcyclopaedia
16. Picture at Wired
17. Picture at OneShoeDiaries