Categories: Accidental discoveries , Chemistry in History |  Comments
Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood
The x-ray has always been a mysterious thing. An invisible beam of high energy electromagnetic radiation that passes through most kinds of matter, it is even named ‘x’ after the mathematical variable used to denote the unknown. And the x-ray itself isn’t the only unknown thing – so are its origins. Sources suggest it was an accidental discovery, but there aren’t as many sources as there should be, due to a very non-accidental fire.
Wilhelm Röntgen, German physicist and discoverer of x-rays, died on 10 February 1923, whereupon all his laboratory records were burnt on his request.
It was an extreme action, but not an unusual one.
While modern science is becoming more and more transparent, not very long ago secrecy was the tool of the inventor’s trade. Through secrecy, successful men were able to preserve their impression of genius, compete against their peers and prevent their ideas from being stolen. The most coveted prize was not scientific elucidation but personal recognition – impossible for those who were too open and lost their ideas to the less scrupulous. It wasn’t just seen amongst scientists; William Howson Taylor, founder of the admired Ruskin pottery, had all his notes burnt at his death in 1935. And so the method was lost with its maker.
We are left with a fuzzy picture, not much easier to illuminate than x-rays themselves, and can only imagine the scene in Röntgen’s laboratory in the winter of 1895… (more…)