Then vs. Now: The Exposing History of X-Rays

Would you buy a ticket to see an X-ray of the coins in your purse?

Loading the player...

Today, you might think of an X-ray as just a basic medical tool. It might not seem that impressive now, but the first X-rays blew people’s minds—so much, in fact, that people bought tickets to X-ray exhibits just to “see through” everyday objects like their purses.

The X-ray wasn’t exactly a medical invention. Indeed, this valuable tool was discovered completely by accident in 1895.

The Discovery of the X-Ray

A German physicist by the name of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was doing tests on cathode rays. Cathode rays are beams of electrons that are observed in a vacuum tube. At this time, physicists were still doing a lot of experimenting about various types of rays, which weren’t fully understood yet.

While he was doing his cathode ray studies, Röntgen noticed that various material objects in the electron path had become fluorescent. This piqued his curiosity, and for weeks, he studied this phenomenon in secret.

Finally, he shared his finding with his wife. He photographed her hand in the beam, revealing the bones of her fingers and her ring. It was astounding—like being able to magically see through her skin. He named this mysterious marvel an X-ray, in which the “X” stands for unknown.

From Public Exhibits to Medical Mechanism

The X-ray quickly became a sensation, and people fled to exhibits to see X-ray photographs of the coins in their purses or the bones in their hands. The exhibitionists would hold up sheets of metal and take an X-ray image through the metal, wowing the audience.

But very quickly, physicians saw how X-rays could benefit their practice. Within just months of the X-ray’s discovery, doctors began using X-rays to view broken bones, find bullets in flesh, and to see kidney stones in the urinary tract.

Unfortunately, physicians and physicists used X-rays with wild abandon, unaware of the health risks of excessive radiation. All the constant and enthusiastic experimentation quickly exposed the dangers. Some began reporting hair loss and skin rashes from all the X-rays, and eye irritation was reported by Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and William Morton.

The occupation of “health physicist” was born, and these health-focused scientists spent the first half of the 20th century studying safe levels of radiation for humans.

As a result, X-rays became safer and more advanced throughout the 20th century, even though the actual process of X-rays has changed very little. In addition to fine-tuning the dose of radiation, the equipment for X-rays also improved, becoming lighter and more portable. 

The photography process improved as well. Film processing became automatic and more sophisticated, presenting a finer quality image. And of course, photography eventually became fully digital, allowing instant imaging.

But perhaps one of the biggest changes is the public’s reaction to X-rays. Today, X-rays are a routine procedure, and usually when something is going wrong with your body. But if you really think about it, you can see why an image of your rib cage, with a faint hint of your skin surrounding it, would be such an impressive sight to someone in 1895.