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Throwback Thursday: Science Edition: X-ray

Welcome to Throwback Thursday! Today we’re going to be looking at a technology, which today, we rarely lend a second thought to. This technology was discovered accidentally, but without it, our lives would be much more complicated. This week our throwback star is X-ray, so let’s find out more… 

The discovery of X-rays

Professor of Physics Wilhelm Röntgen in Wurzburg, Bavaria, discovered X-rays in 1895 whilst testing whether cathode rays could pass through glass. The cathode tube used during his experiments was covered in heavy black paper, so it came as a surprise that incandescent green light escaped and projected onto a fluorescent screen nearby. 

When exploring the mysterious light further, Röntgen found that it could pass through most surfaces, but it would leave the shadows of solid objects. He called these rays “X-rays”, with the “X” meaning “unknown”, as he didn’t know what they were!

Röntgen continued his experiments and quickly found that X-rays could pass through human skin and tissue, making bones and organs visible. For the first time, the invisible human body could be seen without being cut open. News of the discovery spread across the world and within a year, doctors in Europe and the USA were using X-rays. 

In the early days of X-ray use, there was little regard for the side effects of radiation exposure. Scientists such as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, had early suspicions after reporting injuries sustained from experiments with X-rays. Edison’s assistant, Clarence Dally, even died of skin cancer after working extensively with X-rays. His death caused the scientific community to take the risks more seriously, although they still weren’t fully understood.

What exactly are X-rays?

X-rays are electromagnetic energy waves that behave similarly to light rays, except at wavelengths around 1,000 times shorter than those of light. Contrary to what was understood at the time, X-rays, unlike light, could not pass-through flesh harmlessly. During the 1930s, 40s and 50s, many American shoe shops featured fluoroscopes that used X-rays to enable customers to see the bones in their feet. It was only by the 1950s that this practice was determined as risky! 

Röntgen received a lot of praise for his work, including the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901. He never attempted to patent his discovery, which allowed X-ray technology to be widely developed and used in medicine, material analysis and even in airport security. 

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