Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen - Man behind X Rays

Röntgen's name, is chiefly associated with his discovery of the rays that he called X-rays. In 1895 he was studying the phenomena accompanying the passage of an electric current through a gas of extremely low pressure.

On the evening of November 8, 1895, he found that, if the discharge tube is enclosed in a sealed, thick black carton to exclude all light, and if he worked in a dark room, a paper plate covered on one side with barium platinocyanide placed in the path of the rays became fluorescent even when it was as far as two metres from the discharge tube. During subsequent experiments he found that objects of different thicknesses interposed in the path of the rays showed variable transparency to them when recorded on a photographic plate. When he immobilised for some moments the hand of his wife in the path of the rays over a photographic plate, he observed after development of the plate an image of his wife's hand which showed the shadows thrown by the bones of her hand and that of a ring she was wearing, surrounded by the penumbra of the flesh, which was more permeable to the rays and therefore threw a fainter shadow. This was the first "röntgenogram" ever taken. In further experiments, Röntgen showed that the new rays are produced by the impact of cathode rays on a material object. Because their nature was then unknown, he gave them the name X-rays. Later, Max von Laue and his pupils showed that they are of the same electromagnetic nature as light, but differ from it only in the higher frequency of their vibration.

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was born on March 27, 1845, at Lennep in the Lower Rhine Province of Germany, as the only child of a merchant in, and manufacturer of, cloth. His mother was Charlotte Constanze Frowein of Amsterdam, a member of an old Lennep family which had settled in Amsterdam.

When he was three years old, his family moved to Apeldoorn in The Netherlands, where he went to the Institute of Martinus Herman van Doorn, a boarding school. He did not show any special aptitude, but showed a love of nature and was fond of roaming in the open country and forests. He was especially apt at making mechanical contrivances, a characteristic which remained with him also in later life. In 1862 he entered a technical school at Utrecht, where he was however unfairly expelled, accused of having produced a caricature of one of the teachers, which was in fact done by someone else.

He then entered the University of Utrecht in 1865 to study physics. Not having attained the credentials required for a regular student, and hearing that he could enter the Polytechnic at Zurich by passing its examination, he passed this and began studies there as a student of mechanical engineering. He attended the lectures given by Clausius and also worked in the laboratory of Kundt. Both Kundt and Clausius exerted great influence on his development. In 1869 he graduated Ph.D. at the University of Zurich, was appointed assistant to Kundt and went with him to Würzburg in the same year, and three years later to Strasbourg.

For his discovery of X Rays,numerous honours were showered upon him. In several cities, streets were named after him, and a complete list of Prizes, Medals, honorary doctorates, honorary and corresponding memberships of learned societies in Germany as well as abroad.
In spite of all this, Röntgen retained the characteristic of a strikingly modest and reticent man. Throughout his life he retained his love of nature and outdoor occupations.

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

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