The History of X-Ray Technology

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Professor Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen discovered x-ray radiation in his Wuerzburg University lab back in 1895. His discovery is said to have landed like a bomb-shell in the scientific community – and we can honestly say the world has not been the same since.

While working with a cathode-ray tube, the professor noticed crystals on a table near the tube were glowing. As he manipulated the materials in the tube (positive and negative electrodes), he realized a new type of ray was emitting from the tube – stimulating phosphorescent particles in the room. He also discovered this new ray could pass though most solid materials, including human skin. As it did so, it cast a shadow of the solid objects within. When paired with photograph images, you could preserve the process (a finding that led to the x-ray films used in medicine).

Bone was one of the materials that seemed to (mostly) block these rays, as was metal. You might be familiar with one of Roentgen’s first x-ray images, that of his wife’s left hand – with a clear image of her bones and a wedding ring. Once he shared the discovery, scientists around the world rapidly replicated the cathode tube experiments. While it’s true they were uncovering an incredibly powerful and useful “tool,” it is also true that they commended more than a half-century’s long, ignorant exploitation of harmful radiation.


X-Rays were the first radioactive discovery

The combination of x-ray technology and photography immediately caught the attention of scientists of physics, who immediately began using x-rays to explore the structure of matter. X-rays were immediately embraced by the medical field, and within months of its discovery, WWI surgeons were using x-rays to locate bullets and metal shrapnel in their patients. Surgeons in both Europe and the United States were using x-rays to guide them as they worked – somewhat like how benign ultrasounds and scopes are used today. Dentists also saw the possibilities and began using x-rays in their practices.

It took roughly a decade before x-rays were used in the industrial fields because the amount of voltage required to produce a strong enough x-ray wound up breaking the cathode tubes. In 1913, William Coolidge invented a high-vacuum x-ray tube, which could withstand higher power voltage. This strengthening of materials – and refinement of the technology – as continued ever since.

Then Came the Second Source of Radiation

Henri Becquerel, a French scientist working along the same lines a Roentgen, discovered a natural radiation source in 1896. Also working with fluorescents, Becquerel noticed that uranium also gave off radiation. In his case, though, nobody really took notice in any notable way. Rather, Marie Curie – a polish scientist working in France – took interest and began working with her husband, Pierre, to find other radiation sources – including radium and polonium. Since then, scientists have identified multiple naturally occurring, radioactive materials (NORMS).

Things Moved Quickly from Radioactive Fun to Radioactive Dangerous

In the beginning, scientists performed experiments without any cause for concern about their own, or their test subjects’, safety. In fact, during the turn of the century, radioactive substances were treated akin to party tricks – and were sold in mainstream stores as home x-ray kits, health drinks, teeth whiteners and just about any other gimmick you can think of. Because the onset of most low- to mid-grade radiation exposure-based sickness is gradual – rather than acute – experts didn’t associate the injuries and side-effects they experienced as related to radiation.

While some early experimenters did associate their skin burns with their exposure to radioactive exposure, it took the eye irritation experienced by inventors such as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla to wake the scientific community up. Between their complaints, and the work of the Manhattan Project, a tremendous amount of research has been done on radiation and its effect on living organisms.

Ultimately, we’ve learned that radiation protection is a must-have in all scenarios involving radioactive materials and radiation. This ranges from the lead aprons you wear at the dentist’s office to full-scale work tents and ventilation units. There are different types of radiation, so it’s important to know what kind of materials block radiation based on type. Also, companies and industries that expose employees to radiation have taken serious steps to ensure their workers are safe and that their companies are compliant with government regulations. A company safety culture is crucial to keeping everyone safe if you work in career that exposes you to radiation.

X-rays have changed the way we ‘do’ medicine – lives have been saved and countless injuries healed as a result of this powerful tool. In the industrial world, x-rays identify cracks and breaks inside of products, and physicists use them to explore outer space. In truth, x-rays have changed life as we know it.

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