Just two letters – days – to go my A2Z friends. Today is the “X” day. Of course, the letter “X” refers instantly to the “X-Rays” invention. X-Rays can be considered one of the most important inventions in history that affected our lives on a large scale.
For sometime scientists had been reporting bizarre apparitions when they electrified the thin gas in vacuum tubes. The English physicist William Crookes, who saw unearthly luminous clouds floating in the air, had become convinced that he was producing ectoplasm, much beloved of Victorian seances, and had turned to spiritualism as a result. In Germany Röntgen was doing similar experiments and now, alone in the night, his imagination ran wild.
On 8 Nov, 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (who received the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901) –
accidentally – discovered an image cast from his cathode ray generator, projected far beyond the possible range of the cathode rays (now known as an electron beam). Further investigation showed that the rays were generated at the point of contact of the cathode ray beam on the interior of the vacuum tube, that they were not deflected by magnetic fields, and they penetrated many kinds of matter.
But what led to this? Earlier that day, as the November dusk darkened the laboratory, he had noticed that whenever he made sparks in the tube, a fluorescent screen at the other end of the laboratory table glowed slightly. This was the signal that he had been looking for, the sign that invisible rays were being produced in the spark tube, crossing the room and striking the screen, producing the faint glimmer. To track the rays he had been putting pieces of card in their way, but the screen continued to glow whether the cards were there or not as if the rays were able to pass clean through them. He then tried to block the rays with metal but thin pieces of copper and aluminium were as transparent as the card had been.
A week after his discovery, Rontgen took an X-ray photograph of his wife’s hand which clearly revealed her wedding ring and her bones. The photograph electrified the general public and aroused great scientific interest in the new form of radiation. Röntgen named the new form of radiation X-radiation (X standing for “Unknown”). Hence the term X-rays (also referred as Röntgen rays, though this term is unusual outside of Germany).
With the widespread experimentation with x‑rays after their discovery in 1895 by scientists, physicians, and inventors came many stories of burns, hair loss and worse in technical journals of the time. In February 1896 Professor Daniel and Dr Dudley of Vanderbilt University reported hair loss after Dr Dudley was x-rayed. In August 1896 Dr HD Hawks, a graduate of Columbia College, suffered severe hand and chest burns in an x-ray demonstration. It was reported in Electrical Review and led to many other reports of problems associated with x-rays being sent in to the publication. Many experimenters including Elihu Thomson at Edison’s lab, William J. Morton, and Nikola Tesla also reported burns. Elihu Thomson deliberately exposed a finger to an x-ray tube over a period of time and suffered pain, swelling, and blistering. Other effects were sometime blamed for the damage including ultraviolet rays and (according to Tesla) ozone. Many physicians claimed there were no effects from x-ray exposure at all.
Because of the many varied properties of X-rays, they have been used in various applications in science and industry. X-rays are used a lot in medicine to the great benefit of mankind.