The History of the X Ray Machine

by Brenton Shields

The ability to see through certain objects has long been a dream doctors, the military, and safe crackers. Thanks to one of the greatest inventions in medical history, the X-Ray Machine (or, more properly, the X-Ray generator), that dream has become a reality. But how did this marvelous machination, which has undoubtedly saved millions of lives, come to be such a standard medical instrument?

What are X-Rays?

X-Rays make up a unique form of electromagnetic radiation that carries energy, which is absorbed by some substances but not by others. For example, when you go to the doctor's and he or she takes an X-Ray to locate, let's say a broken bone, a blast of X-Radiation is projected at the portion of your body to be examined with X-Ray film (what is known as an "Image Receptor") behind you. The X-Ray shoots photons through your body, most of which are absorbed by your bones. The light that isn't absorbed creates a near-perfect imprint on the film, with showing your bone structure and any flaws (like a break or stress fracture). This is probably the most common use of X-Rays, which allow us to see through certain objects. They have many other uses, too, whether it be for scanning luggage in airports or seeking out hidden bombs in dangerous battlefields.


In November of 1895, Wilhelm Rontgen, a physics professor from Germany, discovered X-Rays while examining Crookes tubes, which are gas-filled discharge tubes used to study electrons. In a serendipitous occurrence, after wrapping one of his tubes in thin, black cardboard, he noticed that some light managed to pass through, glowing on the wall of his laboratory. Upon further investigation, he found that the rays could also pass through paper, books, and then, momentously, his wife's hand. The resulting photograph of his wife's hand bones, complete with a ring, is credited as being the first ever X-Ray image of a human body part. From then on, X-Ray technology grew in concurrence with our understanding of it. Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, two of the greatest scientific minds in history, both experimented with X-Rays, aiding in making them one of the most useful tools in the modern hospital. But how did the modern X-Ray generator come to be?

New Technology

By the early 1920s, it was realized that using Crookes tubes were undependable. In order to generate a current, the tubes must be partially filled with gas, which would inevitably be absorbed by the glass and eventually lead to the inoperability of the X-Ray. This was inefficient, meaning that new Crookes tubes had to be produced each time one burnt out. Think of it like having to replace a very expensive light bulb far more often than you would like. This unfortunate fact led to the adoption of Coolidge tubes, which used a filament made of tungsten and was invariably heated via an electrical current. These Coolidge tubes, which are far more efficient than the severely outdated Crookes tube, are still used within modern medicine and are the basis for most X-Ray machines found in hospitals today.

Medical Usage

Being one of the most useful tools in the medical field, Radiologists use X-Ray Generators to produce pictures of a patients' internal structures, allowing them to diagnose broken bones, locate tumors, and even see the digestive tract. By using an ion chamber located between the patient and the X-Ray film, radiologists can regulate the amount of radiation exposure.


Different types of X-Ray generators are used for different applications. For example, at airports, the X-Ray generators produce very low amounts of radiation, making them safe to be around. A computer is used to process the X-Rays and create an image, which is displayed on a monitor.


As technology advances then inevitably so will X-Rays. In the 1980s, X-Ray lasers were proposed, yet later abandoned. The idea resurfaced under the Bush Administration, and as humanity progresses into an era where technology progresses ten-fold every few years, the X-Rays generators of the future will be smaller, less dangerous, and, most importantly, better, with the ability to save even more lives.

About the Author

Brenton Shields began writing professionally in 2009. His work includes film reviews that appear for the online magazine Los Angeles Chronicle. He received a Bachelor of Science in social science and history from Radford University.