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History of Radiography X-ray
2018-02-28

X-rays were discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen (1845-1923) who was a Professor at Wuerzburg University in Germany. Working with a cathode-ray tube in his laboratory, Roentgen observed a fluorescent glow of crystals on a table near his tube. The tube that Roentgen was working with consisted of a glass envelope (bulb) with positive and negative electrodes encapsulated in it. The air in the tube was evacuated, and when a high voltage was applied, the tube produced a fluorescent glow. Roentgen shielded the tube with heavy black paper, and discovered a green colored fluorescent light generated by a material located a few feet away from the tube.

He concluded that a new type of ray was being emitted from the tube. This ray was capable of passing through the heavy paper covering and exciting the phosphorescent materials in the room. He found that the new ray could pass through most substances casting shadows of solid objects. Roentgen also discovered that the ray could pass through the tissue of humans, but not bones and metal objects. One of Roentgen's first experiments late in 1895 was a film of the hand of his wife, Bertha. It is interesting that the first use of X-rays were for an industrial (not medical) application, as Roentgen produced a radiograph of a set of weights in a box to show his colleagues.

Roentgen's discovery was a scientific bombshell, and was received with extraordinary interest by both scientist and laymen. Scientists everywhere could duplicate his experiment because the cathode tube was very well known during this period. Many scientists dropped other lines of research to pursue the mysterious rays. Newspapers and magazines of the day provided the public with numerous stories, some true, others fanciful, about the properties of the newly discovered rays.

Public fancy was caught by this invisible ray with the ability to pass through solid matter, and, in conjunction with a photographic plate, provide a picture of bones and interior body parts. Scientific fancy was captured by the demonstration of a wavelength shorter than light. This generated new possibilities in physics, and for investigating the structure of matter. Much enthusiasm was generated about potential applications of rays as an aid in medicine and surgery. Within a month after the announcement of the discovery, several medical radiographs had been made in Europe and the United States, which were used by surgeons to guide them in their work. In June 1896, only 6 months after Roentgen announced his discovery, X-rays were being used by battlefield physicians to locate bullets in wounded soldiers.

Prior to 1912, X-rays were used little outside the realms of medicine and dentistry, though some X-ray pictures of metals were produced. The reason that X-rays were not used in industrial application before this date was because the X-ray tubes (the source of the X-rays) broke down under the voltages required to produce rays of satisfactory penetrating power for industrial purposes. However, that changed in 1913 when the high vacuum X-ray tubes designed by Coolidge became available. The high vacuum tubes were an intense and reliable X-ray source, operating at energies up to 100,000 volts.

In 1922, industrial radiography took another step forward with the advent of the 200,000-volt X-ray tube that allowed radiographs of thick steel parts to be produced in a reasonable amount of time. In 1931, General Electric Company developed 1,000,000 volt X-ray generators, providing an effective tool for industrial radiography. That same year, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) permitted X-ray approval of fusion welded pressure vessels that further opened the door to industrial acceptance and use.

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