Exactly 125 years ago, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered by chance the x-rays.

November 07, 2020

A lot of speculations about what x-rays would allow us to do in the future have remained fiction, but the reality of today would probably have exceeded the imagination of that time. (Picture by Nick Veasey using Comet X-Ray tubes)

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered the X-rays by chance. At that time this was not only a scientific sensation, the idea of looking inside bodies and objects with a kind of superpower fascinated the whole of society. The discovery not only revolutionized modern medicine, but enabled a whole series of innovations that changed the world. For example, x-ray technology helps to decode our DNA, to further explore the universe or simply to make our daily world safer.



Discovered by chance and scientific curiosity

As a professor at the University of Würzburg, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, like many other physicists at the time, experimented with cathode rays. In the evening of November 8, 1895, during one of his experiments in his dark laboratory, Röntgen observed by chance previously unknown rays and called them x-rays. Nobody really knows exactly how the discovery took place, because Röntgen had stated in his will that all his notes should be burned after his death. In any case, the observation had aroused Röntgen's scientific curiosity. For the time being behind closed doors, he tirelessly explored the rays further. But as early as December 1895, he published his famous article «Über eine neue Art von Strahlen».  (About a new type of rays)

"Eine neue Art von Strahlen" © Archive of Deutsches Röntgen-Museum
X-ray image of his wife's hand and wedding ring

The x-ray fever

During this early research, the photograph of hand bones and wedding ring of his wife Bertha was taken, which later became world famous. Since many laboratories had cathode ray tubes at that time, his results were quickly confirmed by the international scientific community and the discovery of x-rays became a scientific sensation. On January 23, 1986, Röntgen gave his only public lecture on the subject. It is at that time that rays were renamed "x-rays". The new possibility to look inside the body and various objects was fascinating for the whole society and a real "x-ray fever" broke out. All kinds of things were x-rayed, even only for pure entertainment. At that time, the health consequences of an overdose of radiation for the human body were not yet known. Protective measures only became internationally established much later.

There were also countless speculations about what the "superpower" of x-rays would allow us to do in the future. For example, people dreamed of binoculars with which one could observe people through walls or see underwear through clothes.

First Nobel Prize in Physics without school graduation

In 1901, Röntgen became the first scientist in the world to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. During his school days, no one would probably have predicted such a career for him. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was born in Germany, in today's Remscheid and grew up in Utrecht in the Netherlands and attended the Technical School there. After an incident in which he did not want to betray a classmate who had made a caricature of a teacher, he had to leave school without a degree. He was therefore unable to complete a proper course of study in the Netherlands. He learned from a Swiss engineer that it was possible to study at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, then called the Swiss Federal Polytechnic, without a high school diploma after an entrance examination. Due to his previous knowledge and the intercession of one of the professors, Röntgen was even admitted to the ETH without an entrance examination in 1865. He completed his studies just three years later with a diploma in mechanical engineering. It was August Kundt, a young German professor of physics at the ETH Zurich, who finally got Röntgen interested in physics. It was with him that Röntgen wrote his dissertation entitled "Studies on gases". Incidentally, Röntgen also met his wife Bertha during his studies in Zurich. Bertha was the daughter of the host of his Zurich pub «Zum Grünen Glas».

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen and his Nobel Prize Certificate

Enabling numerous innovations for our modern world

X-rays can indeed be seen as a "superpower" because they have enabled numerous innovations that have made our modern world better. The discovery of x-rays not only revolutionized modern medicine and research, where they help to decipher our DNA or the structures of viruses, but also many other areas that are less well known to the public:

For example, x-ray telescopes are sent into space to investigate black holes. 

In our everyday life, x-ray technology provides more safety. At airports, luggage is examined with x-rays. In the industrial production of cars and airplanes, x-ray technology is used for the non-destructive material testing of components. In this way, defects are detected that are not visible from the outside.

The latest technologies in the x-ray range even allow non-destructive quality testing of structures in the nano range, in the ever smaller microchips for our daily digital applications. The increasing digitalization of all areas of life continues to drive the further development of x-ray technology in the semiconductor and electronics sector. Artificial intelligence and machine learning will also play an increasingly important role in quality inspection in dynamic processes in the future.


With the recent acquisition of ORS, a canadian software company, Comet Group increased its expertise in data analysis, AI and Machine Learning. Here the future of x-ray will help getting automatically, precisely and rapidly exact information that improve production processes, ultimately heading to safer and more sustainable fabrication.

Comet X-Ray modules are used in many future oriented industrial production steps, powered by Artificial Intelligence.

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Do x-rays have superpowers? Yes. And they go well beyond the medical environment.

With its non-destructive testing capabilities and multiple applications, it's improving the safety of billion of people and reliability of products everyday.

Need help to develop or implement future-oriented Non-Destructive Testing?

Contact our  experts for your electronics, aerospace, automotive or security applications.

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