The history of the x-ray is the story of one man's determination to eat, sleep and breathe his work until he solved the mystery behind the strange apparitions that appeared following an electromagnetic reaction, between gasses and an electric charge, inside a glass vacuum tube.
The question so plagued German physics professor, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen (Rontgen, in German), that he stayed in his lab around the clock. He had been experimenting with cathode rays (the offspring of negative and positive electrodes) for weeks; then one night, on November 8, 1895, around midnight, it happened; a strange luminescent green light appeared on a barium platinocyanide barrier on his lab table.
Roentgen played with his new rays, trying to block them with cardboard, but the invisible light rays penetrated through to the wall on the other side. Only when he used a piece of lead was he able to stop the rays. (He had unknowingly set the basis for today's lead-lined aprons worn when using x-ray machines.)
However, as Roentgen held the lead in front of the ray, he noticed than an image of his own fingers appeared on the screen. That's when he realized that his mysterious ray was actually casting an image of an inner object, his finger bones.
Weeks later, he took the next logical step and asked for his wife's assistance. He first placed a photographic plate in front of the fluorescent screen and then convinced Anna Bertha to loan her hand to his experiment. She did so, by holding her hand on the plate for a full 15 minutes, while Roentgen captured the world's first x-ray: the skeletal structure of his wife's hand, complete with her wedding ring.
Not knowing what to call his new penetrating ray, Roentgen named it an, "x-ray," with the "x" standing for, "unknown." Years later, this mysterious invisible light ray would be given Roentgen's own name: Rontgen Rays, although he heartily disapproved of this move.
The world's first x-ray machines were put into use, pinpointing fractured bones, in the month following Roentgen's discovery. X-rays work because body compounds like bone and tissue absorb the light rays (radiation or photons) at different rates; the greater the absorption; the lighter the image will look on film. The heavy concentration of calcium in bones, which absorbs x-rays well, causes bones to appear white in photographs, making fractures very evident. But history has taught us that this same radiation can be a curse, as well as a blessing.
The x-ray's first unwitting victim was an assistant to American inventor, Thomas Edison. Clarence Dally died from repeated exposure to radiation after testing x-rays on his own skin. The radiation burns he received on his hands proved catastrophic. Untreatable cancer ravaged his body, and finally, when amputation of his diseased arms failed to help, he succumbed to cancer in 1904. Edison immediately ceased further x-ray testing in his lab.
Nonetheless, the science community moved forward, eclipsing Roentgen's humble, two-dimensional x-ray apparatus with today's sophisticated, 3D imaging CAT-scan machine.
Other scientists may have sowed the seeds for the birth of the x-ray, but it was Roentgen's curiosity and dedicated efforts that put the complicated puzzle together.
Roentgen won the very first Nobel Prize for Physics, in 1901, for his contribution of the x-ray to medical science. A few decades later, on February 10, 1923, having garnered the moniker, "Father of Diagnostic Radiology," Roentgen died of intestinal cancer.