Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen
March 27, 1845 – February 10, 1923
Wilhelm Röntgen was a German physicist, who, on 8 November 1895, produced and detected electromagnetic radiation in a wavelength range today known as x-rays or Röntgen rays, an achievement that earned him the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901.
In 1888, he obtained the physics chair at the University of Würzburg, and in 1900 at the University of Munich, by special request of the Bavarian government. Röntgen had family in Iowa in the United States and at one time planned to emigrate. Although he accepted an appointment at Columbia University in New York City and had actually purchased transatlantic tickets, the outbreak of World War I changed his plans and he remained in Munich for the rest of his career.
During 1895 Röntgen was investigating the external effects from the various types of vacuum tube equipment —apparatus from Heinrich Hertz, Johann Hittorf, William Crookes, Nikola Tesla and Philipp von Lenard —when an electrical discharge is passed through them. In early November he was repeating an experiment with one of Lenard's tubes in which a thin aluminium window had been added to permit the cathode rays to exit the tube but a cardboard covering was added to protect the aluminium from damage by the strong electrostatic field that is necessary to produce the cathode rays. He knew the cardboard covering prevented light from escaping, yet Röntgen observed that the invisible cathode rays caused a fluorescent effect on a small cardboard screen painted with barium platinocyanide when it was placed close to the aluminium window. It occurred to Röntgen that the Hittorf-Crookes tube, which had a much thicker glass wall than the Lenard tube, might also cause this fluorescent effect.
In the late afternoon of 8 November 1895, Röntgen determined to test his idea. He carefully constructed a black cardboard covering similar to the one he had used on the Lenard tube. He covered the Hittorf-Crookes tube with the cardboard and attached electrodes to a Ruhmkorff coil to generate an electrostatic charge. Before setting up the barium platinocyanide screen to test his idea, Röntgen darkened the room to test the opacity of his cardboard cover. As he passed the Ruhmkorff coil charge through the tube, he determined that the cover was light-tight and turned to prepare the next step of the experiment. It was at this point that Röntgen noticed a faint shimmering from a bench a meter away from the tube. To be sure, he tried several more discharges and saw the same shimmering each time. Striking a match, he discovered the shimmering had come from the location of the barium platinocyanide screen he had been intending to use next.
Röntgen speculated that a new kind of ray might be responsible. 8 November was a Friday, so he took advantage of the weekend to repeat his experiments and make his first notes. In the following weeks he ate and slept in his laboratory as he investigated many properties of the new rays he temporarily termed X-rays, using the mathematical designation for something unknown. Although the new rays would eventually come to bear his name in many languages where they became known as Röntgen Rays, he always preferred the term X-rays. Nearly two weeks after his discovery, he took the very first picture using x-rays of his wife's hand, Anna Bertha. When she saw her skeleton she exclaimed "I have seen my death!"
The idea that Röntgen happened to notice the barium platinocyanide screen misrepresents his investigative powers; he had planned to use the screen in the next step of his experiment and would therefore have made the discovery a few moments later.
At one point while he was investigating the ability of various materials to stop the rays, Röntgen brought a small piece of lead into position while a discharge was occurring. Röntgen thus saw the first radiographic image, his own flickering ghostly skeleton on the barium platinocyanide screen. He later reported that it was at this point that he determined to continue his experiments in secrecy, because he feared for his professional reputation if his observations were in error.
Röntgen's original paper, "On A New Kind Of Rays" (Über eine neue Art von Strahlen), was published 50 days later on 28 December 1895. On 5 January 1896, an Austrian newspaper reported Röntgen's discovery of a new type of radiation. Röntgen was awarded an honorary Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Würzburg after his discovery. He published a total of 3 papers on X-rays between 1895 and 1897. Today, Röntgen is considered the father of diagnostic radiology, the medical specialty which uses imaging to diagnose disease.
In 1901 Röntgen was awarded the very first Nobel Prize in Physics. The award was officially "in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by the discovery of the remarkable rays subsequently named after him". Röntgen donated the monetary reward from his Nobel Prize to his university. Like Pierre Curie several years later, Röntgen refused to take out patents related to his discovery. He did not even want the rays to be named after him.
The Lunar crater Röntgen is named in his honor. In November 2004 IUPAC named element number 111 roentgenium (Rg) in his honor.