The History of X-Ray Technology

Radiography, or the use of ionizing electromagnetic radiation, seems like a simple technology. After all, getting an x-ray done takes only a few minutes at the doctor’s or dentist’s office and we even utilize x-ray technology at many airports for security. Yet despite how ubiquitous x-ray technology is today, it was a relative wonder a little over a century ago. When first introduced, x-rays were used for a lot of applications. They were even used to find shoes that fit! While x-rays may seem common today, the technology that enables them has a fascinating history. With that in mind, we’ve made:

A Brief Timeline of X-Rays

1895 – Wilhelm Rontgen produced and detected electromagnetic radiation within the wavelength known as x-rays. This achievement earned Rontgen the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901. About two weeks after discovering x-rays, Rontgen took the first x-ray picture, which was of his wife Ann Bertha’s hand. Upon seeing her skeleton, she exclaimed “I have seen my death!” Today Rontgen is considered the father of diagnostic radiology.

1896 – It is thought that Emil Grubbe may have been the first American physician to utilize x-ray technology to treat cancer. It is said that his first patient was a woman with recurrent carcinoma of the breast. By 1960, Emil Grubbe had given instruction to over 7,000 doctors in the use of x-rays for medical purposes.

1906 – Charles Barkla discovered that x-rays could be scattered by gases. This was interesting because each gas had its own, unique characteristic x-ray. He won the 1917 Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery.

1913 – The aforementioned Coolidge tube is invented, which creates x-rays through the use of a vacuum tube. The main effect of these tubes is to enable a continuous emission of x-rays. X-ray tubes similar to these are still in use today.

1934 – G. Holst creates the first successful infrared converter tube. This was the first image intensifier tube, and this technology is still used today to allow medical imaging devices to function. They work by converting low levels of light from various wavelengths into visible quantities of light at a single wavelength.

1971 – Computed Tomography (CT) scanning was introduced into medical practice by Godfrey Housfield who developed the technology at EMI central research laboratories. CT scans work by first taking a series of x-rays of a subject from every angle. Then an image is composited by the computer of a slice of the inside of whatever object is scanned. This allows doctors to see inside of a piece of tissue without ever making an incision.

Yes, radiography has come a long way. In the olden days an x-ray of a head could take 11 minutes to produce, while now these images only take milliseconds of exposure. However, It is true that more modern medical imaging techniques have taken the place of x-ray images. For example, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is widely used for medical diagnosis, as well as following-up without exposing patients excessive radiation. Additionally, ultrasound imaging is used in medical imaging when using x-ray technology could be dangerous, like when examining an unborn fetus. With all these advances in medical imaging, it makes you wonder what the next 100 years have in store.

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