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Died 95 years ago:

Konrad Wilhelm Röntgen: The X-ray-man

He made one of the most famous discoveries in the history of science: Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, who died 95 years ago. His "X-rays" not only revolutionized medical diagnostics, but also provided the impetus for further research that ushered in the atomic age.

When Röntgen died in Munich on February 10,1923, he was a world-famous man. And this had to do with that late Friday evening in November 1895, when Röntgen made a strange observation in his Würzburg laboratory (now a museum). How exactly this happened is not handed down; there were - as Röntgen later said - "no more servant spirits in the house". He experimented with electric currents in an airless glass container, a Hittorf tube (invented by physicist Johann Wilhelm Hittorf). Using a fluorescence screen, he observed the electron currents inside the tube - and then apparently outside as well. Röntgen noticed that even at a greater distance from the tube, the screen still shines, even though electron beams in the air reach only a few centimetres.

Anna Röntgen`s hand, picture taken by her husband on December 22, 1895

Anna Röntgen`s hand, picture taken by her husband on December 22, 1895

In contrast to other researchers such as Crookes, Hertz and Lenard, who had possibly already produced this effect before him, Röntgen drew the right conclusions from it: It had to be “a new kind of rays". This is what he called his publication, in which he described his discovery on December 28, 1895, which he called "X rays". He may have discovered their most spectacular ability by chance, perhaps, holding his hand between the tube and the umbrella and suddenly seeing his own bones. Because he also discovered that the X rays are blackening photo plates, he was able to prove their existence with a groundbreaking image: a picture of the hand bones of his (still very much alive) wife Anna.

A picture goes around the world

This first X-ray image ensured that the news of his discovery spread around the world in no time at all. Never before had scientific news spread so quickly and caused such a sensation. Röntgen became world-famous, award-winning and logical winner of the first Nobel Prize for physics in 1901.

This path was not in his cradle: Röntgen, who was born in Remscheid-Lennep on 27 March 1845, left school in Utrecht without graduation. Nevertheless, the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich accepted him, since the entrance examination alone counted there. He studied mechanical engineering and obtained his doctorate with a study of gases. After stations in Würzburg, Strasbourg, Hohenheim and Giessen, he succeeded his former mentor August Kundt as Professor of Physics in Würzburg.

Röntgen was considered an introverted, reserved man and an idealist, because he refrained from obtaining a patent for the production of X rays so that their use remained free for the benefit of research and mankind (financially he could afford it, as he had become a millionaire through inheritance). In the following years, researchers such as Henri Bequerel and the Curies made groundbreaking discoveries in radiation research; Leopold Freund and Georges Chicotot became pioneers in medical radiology and radiation therapy.

Attacked by envy

Foto von Konrad Wilhelm Röntgen

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, ca. 1900

The fact that Röntgen did not want to patent his apparatus may have been noble, but it might have helped him to ward off Philipp Lenard's accusation of plagiarism. Again and again he claimed (especially after his opponent´s death) that Röntgen had either completely stolen his discovery from him or at least concealed his allegedly decisive preliminary work. Both accusations were unfounded. The envious Lenard, who had also been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1905 for his cathode-radiation research, was a convinced National Socialist and anti-Semitic and later also discredited himself professionally as Hitler's court physicist and spokesman of "Deutsche Physik", which denied and negated essential findings of modern science (especially Einstein' s) out of ideological delusion.

Röntgen didn't have to live to see that. In 1900 he moved to the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich as director of the Physics Institute. His research interests included thermal and electrodynamics and crystal physics. He rejected offers from companies to market the X-rays as well as the offered nobility predicate. He donated his Nobel Prize money to the University of Würzburg.

Kontinuierliche Weiterentwicklung bis heute

First page of "Über eine neue Art von Strahlen", 1895

First page of "Über eine neue Art von Strahlen", 1895

The rays bear his name in the German-speaking countries as well as in Central and Eastern Europe, while elsewhere they are called "X rays", as Röntgen himself had called them. The use of radiation has been perfected ever since. For example, Godfrey Hounsfield's X-ray computer tomograph (CT) was an important milestone, which also won the Nobel Prize (1979) and is constantly being optimized, as can be seen from pdf-Datei current patents . Even the X-ray microscope is still being developed further today, as new patents ( pdf-Datei 2013, pdf-Datei 2017 (3,1 MB) ) show.

Pictures: Deutsches Röntgenmuseum, via Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

Last updated: 19/05/18 

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