How the Shy Unknown Wilhelm Roentgen Started an X-ray Craze

X-ray was the first scientific discovery that wasn’t made famous through scientific publishing.  In fact, despite the fact that Roentgen wrote a startlingly prophetic and accurate paper about the discovery of this new ray in December of 1895, most scientists learned about it through their morning papers!  Therefore, the discovery of the x-ray should really be dated not from December of 1895, but instead from a few weeks later January 5th, 1896, the date of the first newspaper account.   Why did it happen this way?  Well, I will tell you. Let’s go!

On December 28th, 1895, a small scientific magazine connected to the Physics department of the University of Würzburgincluded a 10-page paper titled “On a New Type of Ray” written by a shy 50-year-old Physicist named Wilhelm Roentgen.  See, seven weeks before Roentgen had accidentally noticed that a covered vacuum tube could produce a new type of ray that had extraordinary power. They can travel through skin and muscle but would leave shadow images of bones.  Roentgen also found that these rays (that he called x-rays to distinguish them from other rays) would develop film and, for that reason, asked his wife Bertha to hold her hand over a covered film and take the first medical x-ray.  This ghostly image where her wedding ring hung suspended on her bones created an iconic look that was copied by many early x-rays.  However, Roentgen’s paper, like all papers published by that magazine, did not include any pictures, and without the photographs, Roentgen’s conclusion seemed so outlandish that they might have been, as Roentgen’s friend said, “looked upon as the hallucination of a sick mind or the trick of a practical joker”.  On January 5th, Roentgen brought his pictures to a meeting of the “Berlin Physical Society” where they (and Roentgen) were ignored in a “secluded corner, hidden by many spectators.” 

Wilhelm Roentgen
Wilhelm Roentgen

However, Roentgen also sent off twelve copies of his article with photographs to famous scientists throughout the world.  One of the lucky recipients was a former co-worker of Roentgen’s named Franz Exner.  The same day that Exner received the paper and photographs, January 4th, he happened to hold a large dinner party where he regaled his guests with this extraordinary tale over cigars.  Exner’s friend Ernst Lecher was fascinated and asked to borrow the paper and the photographs to show his father.  See, not only was Lecher a physicist who immediately realized the implications of Roentgen’s discovery, but he was also the son of the head editor of the biggest newspaper in Vienna!  That night Lechner and his father wrote the first article about x-rays titled “A Sensational Discovery”.   They admitted that it, “Sounds like a fairytale… in the style of Jules Verne,[1]” but it was not “a daring April fools joke” but a serious study by a legitimate scientist that was supported by “photographic evidence[2]”.  By the very next day, most of the leading German newspapers had an article about it as well as several papers in London.  The Guardian titled it “A Really ‘Sensational Discovery’”[3] and The London Standard reassured the reader that, “there is no joke or humbug in the matter.  It is a serious discovery by a serious German Professor. [4]”  Once it hit London, the news quickly spread throughout the world (I found two articles from January 7th that were from papers in Kansas)!   Not everyone was excited, the editors at The Graphic worried about, “our helplessness…if we were unable to call even our bones our own”, “with the aid of his ‘new light’ [from] this demon Professor.”[5]  (This was right above an article bemoaning how England needed a law to protect men from “the drunken, violent, extravagant, or incurably lazy wife” so it is quite possible that the editors of that paper liked to fuss.)

Anyway, Part of what made x-rays so immediately popular is that Roentgen’s astonishing claims were easily reproduced with just the bare details given in the original x-ray newspaper article.  Cathode rays had been discovered way back in 1859 and by 1896 almost every scientific laboratory had an old Crookes tube or Hittorf tube or another kind of vacuum tube in a closet somewhere to make x-rays with.  By January 13th, Roentgen was sent a wire by the Kaiser to give a personal presentation.  Roentgen refused many, many offers to give a public talk but finally on January 23rd gave a sold-out talk at Roentgen’s University.  He was then given a standing ovation before he even began speaking!  At this talk Roentgen took another x-ray of a hand, and when the film was developed the owner of the hand started a round of three cheers for Roentgen and a proposal that x-rays be renamed “Roentgen rays” which was universally agreed to.  In Germany, they are still often called that to this day!  Philip Lenard (who invented the tube that Roentgen discovered the x-ray with) wrote Roentgen a complimentary letter saying that “because your remarkable discovery caused such remarkable attention in the farthest circles, my modest work has also come into the limelight.[6]”  [Yes, two Remarkables in one sentence].  Roentgen replied that they had, “reason for mutual congratulations” and that he was “very happy that my work has found such a ready recognition from you.”  However, Lenard started to sour on the relationship and be consumed with jealousy.  It seemed like Roentgen was getting all the fame (he did get innumerable honors, prizes (including the first Nobel Prize), and towns named after him).  Lenard started a push that Roentgen didn’t accomplish much complaining, “anyone who was wide awake and using a Lenard tube could have discovered the x-rays.”  Eventually, Lenard took succor in fascism and became the head of “Arian Science” during WW2.  Meanwhile, Roentgen was embarrassed and overwhelmed. Roentgen’s wife Bertha wrote to her cousin in March of 1896, “It is not a small matter to become a famous man, and few people realize how much work and unrest this carries with it.”  Roentgen detested the attention and his wife’s health deteriorated and he disappeared from public life to take care of her.  The large lecture on the 23rd was the last lecture he gave on x-rays for a large audience.  Roentgen never got a patent for his work and even took the money from winning the Nobel Prize and donated it to his university.[7]”  Roentgen wrote a friend, “After a few days I was disgusted with the whole thing.”  He wrote two more papers about x-rays and died bankrupt in 1923. 

Philipp Lenard
Philipp Lenard

Roentgen was sick of x-rays but the general public was in an x-ray craze.  It seemed as a contemporary put it, like “an almost supernatural glimpse into a new world.”  Within a year, Edison had invented a “vitascope” which was a screen of calcium tungstate that would glow brightly when hit with x-rays so that was visible even in a lit room.  Therefore, you could use an uncovered x-ray machine and just hold the screen in front of the patent to get a live view of their insides (as well as a good dose of x-rays for both the patent and the doctor!).  Soon, traveling entertainers would give x-ray demonstrations to the delighted and shocked populous.  People made money selling x-ray-proof underwear to protect you from x-ray perverts.  X-rays were used to cure headaches, for unwanted hair removal, get rid of pimples, cure mastitis, fix asthma, and size your hat!  My mother has fond stories of playing with a continually running x-ray machine at her local shoe store, which was 1000 times stronger than modern x-rays.  Astonishingly, shoe Fluoroscopes were popular in the United States until the 1970s!

Back in 1896, the general public wasn’t the only one fascinated with x-rays; the scientific community was also blown away.  Ernest Rutherford (yes that Ernest Rutherford) recalled that as soon as they heard of it, “Every laboratory in the world took out its old Crookes tubes to produce x-rays.[8]”  This immediately led to a sea change in Physics discoveries.  In France Henri Becquerel was trying to see if the fluorescence was somehow the source of x-rays and discovered radiation.  The next year, in England, Rutherford’s graduate advisor, J. J. Thompson, finally figured out what those pesky cathode rays were made of.  How and why Thompson discovered the first subatomic particle (the electron) and fundamentally changed our understanding of reality is next time on the “Lightning Tamers”   


[1] “A Sensational Discovery” Die Presse, January 5, 1896

[2] The Nobel Prize in Physics 1901 – Perspectives”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 14 Dec 2016.

[3] “A Really Sensational Discovery” The Guardian, London, January 7, 1896 p. 11

[4] “A Photographic Discovery” The London Standard, January 7, 1896 p. 3

[5] “The New Photography” The Graphic: An Illustrated Weekly Newspaper (London), January 11, 1896

[6] referenced on p. 71 Glasser, Otto Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen and the Early History of the Roentgen Ray 1933,

[7] referenced in Glasser, Otto, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen,p. 89

[8] p 34 “Background to Modern Science” 1938 ‘Forty Years of Physics’ Rutheford

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