A Sensational Discovery
Sunday, January 5, 1896
(Translated by Micha Klein, October 7, 2018)
In the educated circles of Vienna, news of a new discovery by Professor Röntgen of Würzburg is creating a great sensation. If this news is confirmed, if the reports regarding this discovery prove to be well founded, then we are dealing with an epoch-making result of research, which should have remarkable consequences, in both the field of physics, as well as medicine. Here is what we hear: “Professor Röntgen takes a Crookes Tube – a highly vacuumed glass tube through which an induction current is sent – and takes photographs on regular photographic plates, with the help of the rays, which that tube sends to the outside. These rays, the existence of which we previously had no idea, are completely invisible to the eye; unlike common light rays, they penetrate wooden materials, organic materials and other non-transparent objects. Metals and bones, on the other hand, block the rays. One can take a photograph in broad daylight by leaving the film in a closed wooden container. This is because the rays can penetrate the wooden lid which is in front of the light sensitive plates which usually has to be removed before taking a photo. Likewise, one can photograph metal objects inside a wooden box without opening the box. For example, Professor Röntgen photographed the weights of a scale without opening the wooden box in which the weights are stored. The resulting photograph shows only the metal weights not the wood. As normal light rays travel through glass, these newly discovered rays emitted by the Crookes Tube travel through wood and also through soft parts of the human body. The most surprising photograph is the image of a human hand using this aforementioned photographic process. The picture shows the bones of the hand with the rings seemingly free floating around the fingers. The soft tissue of the hand is not visible. Some samples of this sensational discovery are circulating among the educated Viennese and are causing justifiable astonishment.”
So far these are the brief details which we could gather to date about the discovery of the scholar from Würzburg. They sound like a fairytale or like a daring April fools joke. We emphasize explicitly once more that this matter is being taken seriously by serious scholars. In the very near future, the matter will likely be very closely examined in laboratories and brought to further development. The pioneers in the specialized field of photography will surely examine the discovery from all sides and conduct experiments to see how it can be perfected and put to practical use. Biologists and doctors, surgeons in particular, will have a very lively interest in this practical evaluation, because it seems that a perspective is opening to a new and very valuable diagnostic means.
In light of such a sensational discovery it is hard to deny fantastic futuristic speculations in the style of Jules Verne. They come so quickly to those who hear assurance that a new light carrier has been found, which can bring the light of bright sunshine through wooden walls and the soft tissue of an animal’s body as if those were made of crystal-clear glass. Any doubts have to be muted when one hears that, so far, the photographic evidence for this discovery seems to validate his claims under the eyes of serious critics. Preliminarily, we can only point to the importance for the diagnostic of bone injuries and bone illnesses if through further technical development of this new photographic process, we will not only be able to photograph a human hand in this fashion so that in the photo the soft parts are not visible while showing a clear picture of the bones. The doctor then could, for example, learn very precisely the special properties of a complicated bone break, without a manual examination that can be painful for the patient; the surgeon, could form an opinion about the position of a foreign object within the human body, for example a bullet or the splinter of a grenade, much more easily than to date, without the often torturous examinations with a probe. For bone diseases which can be traced back to a traumatic impact, such photographs, provided that the production of such will be feasible, would also be a valuable means for diagnose as well as treatment.
And if you let your imagination run free, one could imagine that it would be possible to perfect the photographic process using the Crookes Tube to such a degree that only a part of the soft tissue stays transparent while deeper layers could still be visible on the plate, so that this could be of tremendous help for the diagnosis of numerous other groups of diseases beyond bones. Such an achievement, such progress, given that the first premises are correct, is not outside the realm of possibility. We confess, though, these are future fantasies. Yet anyone who at the beginning of this century would have said that their grandchildren would be able to take true pictures of a bullet in flight and, with the help of an electric apparatus, could facilitate a conversation across the great ocean back-and-forth, would have been suspected to have escaped from an insane asylum. We just wanted to hint at the direction in which this sensational discovery of the scholar from Würzburg could open up in the near future.