Famous Scientists

Wilhelm Röntgen

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Wilhelm Rontgen

The German physicist, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was the first person to systematically produce and detect electromagnetic radiation in a wavelength range today known as x-rays or Röntgen rays. His discovery of x-rays was a great revolution in the fields of physics and medicine and electrified the general public. It also earned him the Rumford Medal of the Royal Society of London in 1896 and the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901. He is also known for his discoveries in mechanics, heat, and electricity.

Early Life and Career:

Röntgen was born on March 27, 1845, at Lennep in the Lower Rhine Province of Germany. He was the only child of a merchant and cloth manufacturer. Röntgen was brought up in Netherlands after he and his family moved to Apeldoorn in 1848. Here he first received his early education at the Institute of Martinus Herman van Doorn, a boarding school and in 1861 attended the Utrecht Technical School. Unfortunately in 1863 he was expelled unfairly from his school after being accused of a prank another student had committed. Even though Röntgen did not seem to be especially gifted in his schoolwork, he was good at building mechanical objects, a talent that enabled him to build many of his own experimental devices in his later life.

He then entered the University of Utrecht in 1865 to study physics without having the necessary credentials required for a regular student. In 1869, he earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Zurich. Here he attended lectures by the noted physicist Rudolf Julius Emmanuel Clausius and also worked in the laboratory of Kundt. As soon as he completed his graduation he was appointed assistant to Kundt and went with him to Würzburg in the same year, and three years later to Strasbourg.

In 1874 he was appointed as a lecturer at Strasbourg University and in 1875 served as a professor in the Academy of Agriculture at Hohenheim in Württemberg. In 1876 he returned to Strasbourg as Professor of Physics. Three years later he accepted the invitation to the Chair of Physics in the University of Giessen. In 1888, he obtained the same position at the University of Würzburg, and in 1900 at the University of Munich. Even though he accepted an appointment at Columbia University in New York City but due to the occurrence of World War I, Röntgen changed his plans and remained in Munich for the rest of his career.

Discovery of X-rays:

During 1895 Röntgen carried out his investigations on the phenomenon of cathode rays. Accidently he put a piece of cardboard covered with fluorescent mineral near the experimental set and noticed it glowing in the dark when the source of cathode rays was turned on. Roentgen immediately initiated an experiment aimed at investigation of the phenomenon.

He found that that if vacuum tube, used for experiments with cathode rays, was covered tightly with thin, black cardboard and placed in a darkened room, bright glow was observed during each discharge on a screen covered with fluorescent barium platinum cyanide (placed near the device). He realised that the fluorescence was caused by an agent which could infiltrate from within the vacuum tube through dark cardboard (impermeable to visible or ultraviolet radiation) to the outside of the set. He termed this agent as x-rays.


Röntgen died at Munich on February 10, 1923, from carcinoma of the intestine.

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