Wilhelm Rontgen (1845 – 1923)
Without question, one breakthrough that has revolutionised the medical profession is the discovery of the x-ray machine. The process of x-raying a patient in a hospital or in the dentist’s chair to get a picture of what is going on inside is so routine that we barely give it a second thought. But someone somewhere must have identified these radioactive rays which illuminate our insides and this is where the latest inductee of our illustrious Hall of Fame, the German physicist, Wilhelm Rontgen, comes in.
During the course of 1895 he began investigating what happened when an electrical discharge was passed through various types of vacuum tubes. In early November he was concentrating on testing a tube created by Philipp von Lenard which had been modified by adding a thin aluminium window to allow the cathode rays to escape and a cardboard covering to stop the aluminium from being damaged. Despite the cardboard cover stopping light escaping, Wilhelm noted that when a small cardboard screen coated with barium platinocyanide was placed close to the aluminium window a fluorescent glow could be detected.
On 8th November Rontgen then turned his attention to the Hittorf-Crookes tube which had a thicker glass wall, covering it with cardboard and attaching it to a coil to generate an electrostatic charge. He darkened the room and as he passed the coil charge through the tube, he noticed a shimmering effect which came from the barium platinocyanide screen he had placed nearby. It dawned on him that he may have isolated a new form of ray which he dubbed x, using the algebraic notation used to denote an unknown quantity.
Locking himself away in his laboratory for a couple of weeks to examine the properties of these rays, Wilhelm summoned his wife, Anna Bertha, and took the world’s first x-ray. When she saw the bones of her hand, his old Dutch exclaimed, “I have seen my death”. It’s hard being an inventor’s wife.
When experimenting to see which materials had the ability to stop the rays, Rontgen positioned a small piece of lead while the discharge was occurring. On the screen he saw his own skeleton, flickering and ghostly – the first radiographic image. He published the first of three papers he wrote on his discovery – Uber eine neue Art von Strahlen (On a New Kind of Rays) – on 28th December 1895 and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Wurzburg. In 1901 Wilhelm was awarded the very first Nobel Prize for Physics.
But as we come to expect from our inductees, financial success didn’t follow his landmark discovery. Firstly, and nobly, he refused to patent his discovery, wanting mankind to benefit from the practical applications of his discovery. The prize money from the Nobel award, he donated to his university at Wurzburg.
But philanthropy doesn’t make you immune from harsh economic reality. Despite inheriting a fortune, 2 million Reichsmarks, on his father’s death, the rampant inflation of the Weimar republic ate into it and shortly after the end of the First World War he was declared bankrupt. He saw the rest of his life out quietly at his country home in Weilheim, near Munich, and on his death in accordance with his wishes, his personal and scientific correspondence was destroyed.
Wilhelm, for identifying x-rays and refusing to patent your discovery, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.
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