In my last post I mentioned the serendipitous discovery of x-rays by Wilhelm Roentgen and how many of us had heard the story. Well, it seems that many of us have not heard the story. So here it is. I was reminded of it as an example as I had recently seen the famous picture of ‘the first ever x-ray’ doing the rounds on social media again. The picture is exactly the sort of thing I love to look at as it ticks several boxes on my What Makes An Awesome Image Checklist (we all have one); it looks cool, it’s old and it’s of scientific interest. Specifically, the picture is of the bejewelled hand of the wife of Wilhelm Roentgen, Anna Bertha Ludwig. A more German name you couldn’t hope to find. You can see the picture on the right here.
As you can see, I wasn’t kidding, it is a cool picture; but then X-rays are inherently cool. It’s a shame we only really get to see them when there is something wrong with us. The days of them being a fairground sideshow are long gone which, given how bad for you repeated exposure can be, probably isn’t such a bad thing. Even today there is something captivating about seeing ‘inside’ ourselves, it’s like seeing a picture of a nebula from deep space; it’s universally captivating, an experience fascinating to all. Indeed, Frau Ludwig is quoted as having said, “I have seen my death!” Considering how interesting we still find these images more than a century later I can’t imagine how shocking it must have been in the winter of 1895-1896.
So far so awesome. But a few days after I first saw this picture I came across another photo (at left), very similar but slightly different, also claiming that it is a copy of the first X-Ray ever taken. Well, they can’t both be the first so I decided to try and get to the bottom of it.
A quick Google image search revealed that there seems to be a number of these hand X-Rays all saying that they are the first ever taken; so how to go about pinning down the true culprit? Let’s start by going over what we know for certain. No one is disputing that Roentgen was the first to use X-Rays to produce images or that his wife regularly helped him out in the lab. They were working at Wuerzburg University in Bavaria where Wilhelm was a Professor of Physics. In late November 1895 he was experimenting with various new pieces of equipment produced by such luminaries as Heinrich Hertz and Nicola Tesla. Specifically he was seeing what happens when you pass a current through vacuum tubes. One of the tubes had a window cut out of it but this was shielded by a little cardboard screen to stop any light escaping. However, even though no light could have been shining out he noticed that a nearby piece of cardboard painted with barium platinocyanide had a dull light upon it. Like all good scientists he set out to test this phenomenon more thoroughly. He set up the experiment again but this time making certain that the hole blocked by cardboard was absolutely light proof beforehand. Seeing the same effect again, and noticing that it only occurred when he passed electricity through the system he concluded that he may have discovered a new type of ray. He called it an X-Ray, X as in the algebraic term for unknown, i.e. an unknown Ray. The moniker stuck in much of the western world although there are still plenty of places where they’re still called Roentgen Rays, and the resultant images Roentgenograms. Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? The significance of the barium platinocyanide turned out to be that it is impermeable to X-Rays, which is why it glowed when struck by them. This phenomenon has been put to good use to develop the barium swallow technique. This allows you to see real time video of an X-Ray and uses the barium to help highlight internal structure.
Now, Herr Roentgen was a prudent man and he soon suspected, quite correctly, that these new types of rays could be potentially harmful. It was only the following year that Madame Curie started her work on uranium (which Becquerel had noticed gave off a similar kind of ray as the X-Ray but it did so of it’s own volition, it didn’t need an external source of power to be produced. He had discovered radioactivity). Therefore it seems unlikely that he immediately ran into the next room and said to his wife, “Here, Anna, stick your hand in there, love, and lets see what happens.” Indeed, it seems that the first deliberately produced image was that of his own hand, but this was just a temporary one that changed as he waved his hand in front of the apparatus. It was in the coming weeks that he had the bright spark of putting photographic film in the way of the rays. Perhaps it was at this stage that he asked the missus to raise her hand for science, we can’t be sure.
What is self-evident, though, is that one of the above photos is in perfect sharp focus and the other is a bit of a fuzzy mess. Which of those is more likely to be the first ever deliberate X-Ray? The fuzzy one also has a Wuerzberg University stamp on it. Given this it seems reasonable to say that this one predates the other, and indeed any of the others I can find online. In which case I’m going to put my nickel down and say that this second picture is likely to be the oldest, not necessarily first, X-Ray ever taken.
The rest, as they say, is the history of science. The potential uses of Roentgen’s new rays were quickly grasped. Within just a year there was a radiology unit set up in Glasgow and patients have been reaping the rewards ever since, especially once the potential dangers were realised and accounted for. Roentgen never patented his new idea, believing that it was a technology that should be available to all the world at no cost. A noble act that led him to bankruptcy and a Nobel Prize, the first ever one for physics; he donated all the prize money to the university. And, in 2004, element 111 in the periodic table was officially renamed Roentgenium in his honour, a vast improvement on unununium and no mistake.