Today is the birthday (1845) of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, a German physicist who produced and detected electromagnetic radiation in a wavelength range today known as X-rays or Röntgen rays, an achievement that earned him the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901. In honor of his accomplishments, in 2004 the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) named element 111, roentgenium, a radioactive element with multiple unstable isotopes, after him.
Röntgen was born 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 entrance examination, he took the exam and began studies there as a student of mechanical engineering. He attended the lectures given by Rudolf Clausius and also worked in the laboratory of August 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. In 1874 he qualified as Lecturer at Strasbourg University and in 1875 he was appointed Professor in the Academy of Agriculture at Hohenheim in Württemberg. In 1876 he returned to Strasbourg as Professor of Physics, but three years later he accepted the invitation to the Chair of Physics in the University of Giessen.
After having declined invitations to similar positions in the Universities of Jena (1886) and Utrecht (1888), he accepted a post from the University of Würzburg (1888), where he succeeded Friedrich Kohlrausch and found among his colleagues Hermann von Helmholtz and Ludvig Lorenz. In 1899 he declined an offer to the Chair of Physics in the University of Leipzig, but in 1900 he accepted it in the University of Munich, by special request of the Bavarian government. Here he remained for the rest of his life, although he was offered, but declined, the Presidency of the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt at Berlin and the Chair of Physics of the Berlin Academy.
Röntgen’s first work was published in 1870, dealing with the specific heats of gases, followed a few years later by a paper on the thermal conductivity of crystals. Among other problems he studied were the electrical and other characteristics of quartz; the influence of pressure on the refractive indices of various fluids; the modification of the planes of polarized light by electromagnetic influences; the variations in the functions of the temperature and the compressibility of water and other fluids; the phenomena accompanying the spreading of oil drops on water.
Röntgen’s name, however, 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 at extremely low pressure. Previous work in this field had already been carried out by numerous physicists, working on the prop