Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen (27th March 1845 – 10th February 1923)

The first X-rays, or electromagnetic radiation, were in their earliest days also known as Roentgen rays, named after the German scientist who discovered them, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901.

A modest and humble man who preferred to use the term X-ray, rather than to publicise his own name, Roentgen refused to patent his work believing it should be available for all mankind to benefit from the fruits of his scientific career - which began in 1865 when studying mechanical engineering at the University of Zurich. Thereafter he was constantly involved in lecturing and research, and was due to take up an appointment at Columbia University in New York when the outbreak of World War 1 led him to remain in Munich.

'I have seen my death.'

In 1895,  when Roentgen was experimenting with cathode rays, passing an electrical current through some gas in vacuum tubes, he decided to seal the tubes in thick cardboard cartons, thus excluding all external light while allowing the rays of fluorescent light to shine through onto other objects. When he placed his wife’s hand in the path of the rays, in front of a photographic plate, the ‘light picture’ then created was quite astonishing, for it showed not the flesh of her hand but the bones of the skeleton within resulting in her famous quote: ‘I have seen my death’.

The VV is very glad to say that due to her husband’s careful use of materials such as lead to shield the rays with which he worked, the Roentgens both lived well into old age.


  1. Oh I *heart* stories like this... it makes things that I have little understanding of that less scary.
    I could hug the fact that they're called X-Rays simply because the lovely man wanted the anonymity and not because of some complicated formulae that I always thought was beyond my comprehension. Ah X-Rays.... gotta love 'em. And good call with the lead thing.

  2. The man was a clever and observant scientist. And morally upstanding.

    In many languages, radiology is still called Roentgenology, as it should be. When my husband first became a radiologist, in Israel they called him a "Rofeh Roentgen" i.e a Doctor of Roentgenology.

  3. Debs,

    I always think it's fascinating to discover how things we now take for granted first came about...so many technological advances in the Victorian age. I should focus a little more on science for a while!
    More facts, less frivolity...


    That's so interesting. I do like the sound of Rofeh Roentgen. Thank


  4. The Roentgen Rays, the Roentgen Rays,
    what is this craze?
    The town’s ablaze
    with the new phase
    of X-ray’s ways.

    I’m full of daze,
    shock and amaze;
    for nowadays
    I hear they’ll gaze
    thro’ cloak and gown – and even stays,
    these naughty, naughty Roentgen Rays.

    (Anon, Photography, 1896)

  5. Ha! Thank you Lady Crafthole.


  6. In Japanese an x-ray is still called 'ren-to-gen' too. I love that he wanted mankind to benefit from his invention.