On my list and map, I placed the museum’s location as a “possible” to visit in the city. If I had time, I’d swing by and have a look, appealing to my fondness for science and the history of science.
Many arrive in Würzburg to visit the Residenz UNESCO world heritage site. On a daytrip from Frankfurt am Main, I duly visited the Residenz, and easily completed my initial visit requirements, as I knew I would. That’s when my inner voice (a.k.a., the spirit of B.Sc. ’90) reminded me insistently the museum was “simply and conveniently” on the return walk to the city’s central train station to fully complete my visit requirements.
I walked north from the Residenz, and followed the signs into the building for the Röntgen-Gedächtnisstätte (Röntgen Memorial) where X-rays were discovered. Standing inside the former laboratory space, I’m surrounded by artifacts, books, papers, tubes, equipment, and photographs.
I also feel a part of my undergraduate physics education has come full circle.
The X Factor
In 1895, Dr. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was physicist on staff with the Institute of Physics at the University of Würzburg. Röntgen carried out experiments to study cathode rays (negatively-charged electrons) using various kinds of cathode tubes which were readily available at the time. A cathode or negative terminal and an anode or positive terminal are fused within a glass tube that is evacuated or filled with a rarefied gas. With the two terminals connected in a high-voltage electrical circuit, the cathode is heated and electrons generated from the cathode race to the anode. The experimental apparatus was lightly shielded with black cardboard, but Röntgen noticed barium platinocyanide screens placed about 3 metres from the apparatus emitted a faint green glow. Further tests revealed the glow or fluorescence was caused by a previously unknown kind of radiation emanating from the apparatus, penetrating through the glass and cardboard, before striking the light-sensitive screens farther away. Röntgen deduced the new radiation was produced from inside the glass tubes: high-speed electrons striking the metal anode was producing highly energetic “rays”. For simplicity, he called the new radiation “X-rays” (“X-Strahlen”) to distinguish the finding simply from other known types of rays.
Rötgen’s discovery date was 8 November 1895, and things from here progressed quickly.
• 22 December 1895: he produced one of the world’s first X-ray image: the left hand of his wife, Anna Ludwig Röntgen. With shock upon seeing the image, she reportedly said: “I have seen my death“.
• 28 December 1895: Röntgen submitted to the Physical-Medical Society of Würzburg a manuscript titled, “On A New Type of Rays (Preliminary Communication)”, describing experiments and discovery.
• 31 December 1895: The manuscript was published within the 1895 annual report for the Physical-Medical Society of Würzburg.
• 23 January 1896: Upon invitation by the Society, Röntgen gave his only public lecture about his discovery. During the lecture, Röntgen produced an X-ray image of anatomist Albert von Kölliker’s left hand. Amazed by what he saw, Kölliker suggested the new rays be named “Röntgen rays” to which the lecture audience responded with enthusiastic applause.
• February 1896: Eder and Valenta published a book with various X-ray images to show the world the utility of these “new rays” and to show what kinds of objects were opaque or transparent to the rays.
• Röntgen chose not to patent his finding, allowing others to experiment and explore. By 1896, X-rays had already found uses in the medical community; e.g., diagnosis of broken bones, preliminary treatment of cancer, radiography of blood vessels (angiography).
• 12 November 1901: The Nobel Society awarded to Röntgen the first-ever Nobel Prize in Physics for the groundbreaking discovery. By this point, Röntgen and his family had already been at the University of Munich for a year.
It’s very easy to take for granted how important an role X-rays plays in contemporary society; medical imaging is an obvious and critical diagnostic tool in modern medicine. With the discovery at the end of the 19th-century, the “new” X-rays meant a whole new way of looking forward into the 20th-century, particularly looking “inside” objects without invasive rupture or unnecessary damage. What are “X-rays” in the English-speaking world are called “Röntgen rays” (Röntgenstrahlen, Röntgenstrahlung) in the German-speaking world.
Röntgen Memorial in Würzburg
The 1878 building at Röntgenring 8 once housed Röntgen’s laboratory within the former Institute of Physics as part of the old University of Würzburg. The building survived for the most part bombing during World War 2, and underwent reconstruction in the late-1970s for present-day use by the University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt. The non-profit registered association Röntgenkuratorium Würzburg e.V. coordinated and built a memorial where X-rays were discovered. The Röntgen-Gedächtnisstätte (Röntgen Memorial) opened in 1985, and the association updated the memorial in 2015. The European Physical Society (EPS) recognized the Röntgen memorial as an “EPS Historic Site” in 2016.
Röntgen report, 1895
Röntgen, W. C. “Über eine neue Art von Strahlen. (Vorläufige Mittheilung.)” Sonderabdruck aus den Sitzungsberichten der Würzburger Physikalisch-medizinischen Gesellschaft, Jahrgang 1895, no. 9, 132-141 (auch: 2. Auflage, 1896).
G. F. Barker’s English translation of Röntgen’s report, “On a new type of rays (preliminary communication),” can be found in Otto Glasser’s book “Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen and the Early History of the Roentgen Rays” (1993, Norman Publishing, San Francisco).
The Röntgen memorial is 0.5 km (less than 10-minute walk) from Würzburg’s central train station and is about 1 km (less than 20-minute walk) from Residenz Würzburg. An unguided visit to the museum is free of charge; open hours are Monday to Friday 8am to 7pm, Saturdays 8am to 5pm.
Except for 1 Wiki image, I made all other photos above on 17 October 2017. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotografie at fotoeins DOT com as https://wp.me/p1BIdT-b0w.