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History of the X-ray

Posted on the 19 February 2019 by Mountain Publishing @mountainpublish

X-ray machines are used widely in diagnostic medicine, check items going in and out of the country, and have many scientific and industrial applications. X-rays are crucially important, especially given how relatively young the technology is. Here is a brief history of the x-ray and how it came to play such a major role in our daily lives.

X-ray invention

The honor of inventing the x-ray goes to a German professor by the name of Röntgen. In 1895, this inventor and scientist discovered that invisible rays within the light spectrum exist, and that these rays can move through all kinds of materials that normal light could never penetrate.

He then discovered that these rays would cause certain chemicals to light up with fluorescence. The new technology was a favorite sideshow trick, and scientists, carnival shows, and filmmakers all played with it. Some favorite activities including displaying the skeleton of living people onto a sheet and x-rays in fortune telling.

Medical use

Though everyone was interested in this new technology and saw lots of possible applications, the medical world very quickly realized the amazing potential it had to allow them to see things they could otherwise only see by cutting a person open.

One of the first to apply this tech was a dentist name Walkhoff. By 1896, just one American radiology laboratory alone had conducted more than 1400 x-rays on patients referred to the lab by their doctors. In 1897, the first radiology department in a hospital was opened in Hôpital Tenon.

Waking up slowly

At the time, no one wore lead aprons for x-rays or even seriously limited their exposure. For a while, no one was aware of the dangers inherent to x-rays. They were just a type of photograph, and most people assumed anyone who could take pictures could also take x-rays. The market promised to be huge, and there was fierce competition for a piece of it.

People only became concerned very slowly. Salesmen would use themselves to demonstrate the tech to doctors, and over time, this constantly repeated exposure began to show consequences. Unfortunately, few people were paying attention.

More early warnings

Scientists were interested in how x-rays could affect the skin. After radiating a child’s head for an hour a day over 21 days, they discovered the child’s hair began to fall out while the skin appeared unharmed. Instead of finding this concerning, however, most were interested in how x-rays could be used in hair removal.

A lab assistant to Thomas Edison died of mediastinal cancer in 1900 after personally testing every x-ray tube they worked with. By 1903, Edison would no longer work with x-rays at all, pronouncing himself “afraid of them.” Other suffered similar fates, and people finally began to be concerned.

Early x-ray protection

Scientists had learned early on that x-rays could not penetrate lead, so lead shields began to be developed to fit around x-ray tubes. The medical world realized x-rays could be dangerous, but the general public remained unaware for many years.

In the early 1900s, an inventor by the name of Coolidge came up with new type of x-ray tube, and his design is still the model all modern x-ray tubes are made from. He used tungsten wire that allowed the tube to work more quickly, which meant shorter exposures for everyone involved.

Modern applications

X-ray technology is now used throughout the medical world, albeit with stringent safety precautions. In the mid-70s, x-ray technology and the Coolidge tube were used to develop the CAT-scan. Where the x-ray takes a two dimensional picture of the body, the CAT-scan takes a three dimensional one.

Many people suffered radiation sickness in the early days of the x-ray, and mistakes were made. Yet innovators persevered, and as a result today, we can safely enjoy the amazing medical benefits of x-ray technology: one of the cheapest and most efficient analytical tools at medicine’s disposal.


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