Born in Germany on March 27th, 1845, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen grew up in the Netherlands. Röntgen was known as a child who loved nature and liked to wander outdoors, and he had a special talent for mechanical work. His education did not follow a linear path, having even been wrongly expelled from a technical school in Utrecht before eventually graduating with his PhD from the University of Zurich and later becoming a professor and lecturer at various European institutions.
Röntgen is most famous, however, for his discovery of x-rays in 1895. While experimenting with cathode rays and vacuum tubes, he discovered a new kind of ray which could pass through different types of materials, but was stopped by others. He continued to experiment with these strange rays, which he dubbed “x-rays” because “x” indicated an unknown variable in mathematics. He soon took the first medical x-ray of his wife Anna’s hand, revealing her bones and capturing as well the ring she wore on her finger. Upon seeing this, she famously exclaimed “I have seen my death!”
Many of Röntgen’s colleagues insisted on calling the sensational new rays “Röntgen Rays,” after their discoverer, but Röntgen protested. His own moniker for the discovery had stuck in English, but in many languages they remain named after him. X-rays made a massive splash in many areas of the scientific world very quickly, leading to over 1000 articles being published on the subject in 1896 alone, and Röntgen being awarded the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901.
X-rays continue to be used in many settings today, especially in the medical world, but they were even more widely popular in their early days. They were used at carnivals and fairs to entertain and amaze people, and shoe stores even used x-ray machines to measure patrons’ feet! Despite his great success, Röntgen remained, by all accounts, a modest and friendly man who continued to enjoy time spent in nature and with friends. He passed away on February 10th, 1923 from carcinoma of the intestine.
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