On This Date: November 8th

Nov 8, 1895:

German scientist discovers X-rays

On this day in 1895, physicist Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen (1845-1923) becomes the first person to observe X-rays, a significant scientific advancement that would ultimately benefit a variety of fields, most of all medicine, by making the invisible visible. Rontgen’s discovery occurred accidentally in his Wurzburg, Germany, lab, where he was testing whether cathode rays could pass through glass when he noticed a glow coming from a nearby chemically coated screen. He dubbed the rays that caused this glow X-rays because of their unknown nature.

X-ray image of the paranasal sinuses, lateral ...

X-rays are electromagnetic energy waves that act similarly to light rays, but at wavelengths approximately 1,000 times shorter than those of light. Rontgen holed up in his lab and conducted a series of experiments to better understand his discovery. He learned that X-rays penetrate human flesh but not higher-density substances such as bone or lead and that they can be photographed.

Rontgen’s discovery was labeled a medical miracle and X-rays soon became an important diagnostic tool in medicine, allowing doctors to see inside the human body for the first time without surgery. In 1897, X-rays were first used on a military battlefield, during the Balkan War, to find bullets and broken bones inside patients.

Scientists were quick to realize the benefits of X-rays, but slower to comprehend the harmful effects of radiation. Initially, it was believed X-rays passed through flesh as harmlessly as light. However, within several years, researchers began to report cases of burns and skin damage after exposure to X-rays, and in 1904, Thomas Edison’s assistant, Clarence Dally, who had worked extensively with X-rays, died of skin cancer. Dally’s death caused some scientists to begin taking the risks of radiation more seriously, but they still weren’t fully understood. During the 1930s, 40s and 50s, in fact, many American shoe stores featured shoe-fitting fluoroscopes that used to X-rays to enable customers to see the bones in their feet; it wasn’t until the 1950s that this practice was determined to be risky business. Wilhelm Rontgen received numerous accolades for his work, including the first Nobel Prize in physics in 1901, yet he remained modest and never tried to patent his discovery. Today, X-ray technology is widely used in medicine, material analysis and devices such as airport security scanners.

Also on This Day

American Revolution
Washington seeks to make militias into a military, 1775
Sun sets on the Ford Rotunda, 1962
Civil War
President Lincoln is re-elected, 1864
Cold War
John F. Kennedy elected president, 1960
Ted Bundy botches an abduction attempt, 1974
Hurricane Gordon is born, 1994
General Interest
Louvre Museum opens, 1793
Beer Hall Putsch begins, 1923
The Republican Revolution, 1994
Dracula creator Bram Stoker born, 1847
Margaret Mitchell is born, 1900
Salvatore “Sonny” Bono is elected to the U.S. Congress, 1994
Old West
Doc Holliday dies of tuberculosis, 1887
FDR broadcasts message to Vichy France leader Marshal Petain, 1942
Yogi Berra is the AL MVP, 1951
Vietnam War
Lawrence Joel earns Medal of Honor, 1965
World War I
New Russian leader Lenin calls for immediate armistice, 1917
World War II
Hitler survives assassination attempt, 1939

This Week in History, Nov 8 – Nov 14

Nov 08, 1895
German scientist discovers X-rays
Nov 09, 1938
Nazis launch Kristallnacht
Nov 10, 1969
Sesame Street debuts
Nov 11, 1918
World War I ends
Nov 12, 1954
Ellis Island closes
Nov 13, 1982
Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedicated
Nov 14, 1851
Moby-Dick published

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