A Brief History of X-Rays

May 6, 2024 7:12:00 AM Posted by Iowa Radiology


A Groundbreaking Discovery

On November 8, 1895, physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen was experimenting with cathode rays—streams of electrons that were first observed in 1859 by two other German physicists, Julius Plücker and Johann Wilhelm Hittorf. During his experiment, he noticed a glow appear on a screen that was nine feet away, although he had shielded the tube he was using to produce the rays with thick black cardboard. Investigation of this strange phenomenon led to the discovery of a previously unknown form of radiation that could penetrate solid objects. He named this newly discovered radiation “X-rays.”

He found that while X-rays could pass through most objects, including human soft tissues, they did not penetrate metal or bone. As a result, he was able to use them to produce images of bones on photographic plates. Among the first of these images was of his wife’s hand, displaying the bones and the ring she was wearing.


Roentgen X-ray

In January of the following year, Roentgen gave his first public presentation of this capability before the Würzburg Physico-Medical Society, demonstrating by creating an image of an attendee’s hand. News of the discovery spread rapidly, and X-ray devices were soon widely available. In January 1896, doctors began using the technology to visualize bones and foreign objects in patients’ bodies, and the field of radiology was born.


Marie Curie’s War Effort

In 1914, as World War I was beginning, all existing X-ray machines were stationary devices. Marie Curie, a French scientist best known for her discovery of radium and her Nobel Prizes in chemistry and physics, put her skills to work to save lives on the battlefield. With funds raised through the philanthropic organization Union of Women of France, Curie built the first mobile X-ray unit to help treat wounded soldiers.


Mobile X-ray

In October 1914, Curie personally went to the front lines in this vehicle. She was accompanied by her 17-year-old daughter, who served as her assistant, and a military doctor. Soon there were 20 of these mobile X-ray devices, and Curie and her daughter worked together to train 20 women in the science and use of X-rays so they could operate them. They ultimately trained a total of 150 women in this work. Unfortunately, however, X-ray safety was not well understood in those early days, and many pioneering X-ray workers, including the Curies, suffered the effects of radiation poisoning.


The Evolution of Radiologic Professionals

In 1920, fourteen X-ray workers assembled in Chicago to create the American Association of Radiological Technicians (later, the American Society of X-Ray Technicians) so these professionals could share their knowledge and insight. Membership boomed following World War II as military-trained technicians returned home and sought private employment.

In 1964, the organization changed its name to the American Association of Radiologic Technologists to highlight its emphasis on education and professionalism. The group pressed the federal government to adopt uniform standards for radiologic education and safety, but the Consumer-Patient Radiation Health and Safety bill would not become law until 1981, after procedures like computed tomography (CT), mammography and sonography had become commonplace.


Technological Advances

The technology of medical imaging has taken major leaps since Roentgen’s 19th-century experiments and Curie’s radiologic cars. Some of the most notable include the following:

  • In the 1950s, ultrasound began to be used for medical diagnosis and obstetric evaluation.
  • The 1970s saw the first CT scanners used in hospitals.
  • In 1976, the American Cancer Society began recommending mammography screening for early breast cancer diagnosis.
  • In the early 1980s, hospitals began using MRI.
  • In 1991, functional MRI allowed researchers to visualize human brain activity.
  • Obstetric ultrasound became a routine part of prenatal care in the 1990s.
  • In 1995, digital X-ray technology was developed, allowing practitioners to view images instantly on a screen rather than having to develop film.
  • 3D mammography was introduced in 2008.
  • Abbreviated breast MRI was introduced in 2014 as a method of enhanced cancer screening for women at higher risk.

As we move into the future, research and innovation continue to push imaging technology forward, providing new tools for diagnosing and treating a wide range of conditions.


State-of-the-Art Imaging

At Iowa Radiology, we always strive to provide the very best patient care. That includes holding ourselves to high standards and using the most up-to-date imaging technology. We proudly offer 3D mammography, abbreviated breast MRI, virtual colonoscopy, and other advanced imaging methods to provide the best possible medical information. You can learn more about our imaging technologies and practices on our services page or our blog.



American Physical Society. This Month in Physics History—November 8, 1895: Roentgen's Discovery of X-Rays. Published November 2021. Accessed March 21, 2024. https://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/200111/history.cfm.

American Registry of Radiologic Technologists. A Timeline of Our Profession. Published June 15, 2022. Accessed March 21, 2024. https://www.arrt.org/pages/arrt-timeline.

Curious Minds. Developments in medical imaging—timeline. Science Learning Hub. Published July 21, 2007. Updated May 12, 2014. Accessed March 21, 2024. https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/1906-developments-in-medical-imaging-timeline.

Hernández ML, Osorio S, Florez K, et al. Abbreviated magnetic resonance imaging in breast cancer: A systematic review of literature. Eur. J. Radiol. Open. 2021;8: 100307. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ejro.2020.100307.

Jorgensen TJ. How Marie Curie Brought X-Ray Machines to the Battlefield. Smithsonian Magazine. Published October 11, 2017. Accessed March 21, 2024. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-marie-curie-brought-x-ray-machines-to-battlefield-180965240/.

The Nobel Prize. Marie Curie. Updated March 21, 2024. Accessed March 21, 2024. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1911/marie-curie/facts/.

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