How Did the Invention of the X-Ray Machine Change Society?

by Joseph Cummins

In 1895, William Roentgen, a 50-year-old professor of physics at Germany’s University of Wurzberg, made a discovery that would in a very short time change medical and human history. During an experiment in which he was exploring the path electrical rays took from an induction coil through a glass tube covered with heavy black paper, Roentgen noticed that the rays illuminated a florescent screen across the room, causing it to glow despite the fact that the tube was covered. Obviously, the electromagnetic rays were able to pass through material.

The First X-Ray

Without realizing it, Roentgen had become the first person to discover how to use electromagnetic radiation to create the X-ray. The first X-ray is one he took of his wife’s hand. Prior to this, tumors, broken bones and bullets buried within bodies could only be assessed via direct examination by a doctor, and how well a patient fared depended on the skill of the physician. Within a month after Roentgen’s announcement, doctors were using X-rays for diagnostic purposes, but the first X-ray machine for medical purposes wasn’t designed until 1913. By 1896, an X-ray department was established in a Scottish hospital that produced X-rays of a kidney stone and a penny lodged in a child’s throat.

Images of the Heart and Brain

The X-ray brought about immense changes to society. Doctors, for the first time, could see images of the human heart and brain and the medical specialty of radiology was born. By May of 1896, the X-ray had its first medical use, when it was used in Naples to locate bullets in the arm of a soldier wounded in an Italian campaign against the Ethiopians. A German doctor would find a sarcoma in the tibia of a child. Before long, X-rays would be used to fight cancer (with radiation therapy) as well as discover it.

Other Uses

X-rays have numerous other uses besides medical ones. Physicists now use X-ray lasers to probe the structure of crystals and atoms. In 1949, a a team led by Herbert Friedman of the Naval Research Academy put several small Geiger counters -- which detect radiation – aboard a captured German V-2 rocket and launched it 50 miles into the air. From this experiment and others, scientists discovered that the sun and stars emit X-rays, a discovery that has helped us find distant galaxies. And biologists have used X-ray microscopes to image tiny organisms and cell structures that ordinary microscopes cannot detect.

A Part of Modern Life

From taking pictures of dinosaurs – in 2010, a special, hair-thin X-ray beam was used to explore a fossil that turned out to be half dinosaur, half bird -- to their use in security scanners at airports today, X-rays are an integral part of modern life.

About the Author

Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.

Photo Credits

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