Disruptive technology 1890s-style: the impact of the X-ray

To be labelled a “disruptor” today is seen as a badge of honor for start-ups and tech companies. Disruptive innovation changes the landscape of an industry, or creates a completely new one. The combination of making a major impact on society, with an irreverent disregard for the established way of doing things, makes the term “disruptive technology” a giant among tech industry buzzwords. But are these really new ideas?

On November 8, we celebrate World Radiography Day, the anniversary of the X-ray’s discovery. We now use X-rays everywhere from hospitals to airports, but in the 1890s, the new and mysterious X-ray was an incredible leap forward. Its discovery was met with many of the trademark signs of disruption, from media frenzy, to new privacy and legal questions. Here we present the tech disruptor of the 1890s: Wilhelm Röntgen and his X-rays.

As with many great discoveries, X-rays were discovered by accident

In 1895, German scientist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was experimenting with cathode-ray tubes. He became intrigued by a glowing fluorescent screen far away from the tubes. While trying to find the source of the glow over a period of weeks, he discovered that the cathode rays were impacting the glass vacuum tubes to create an invisible ray.

Even more intriguing, the ray could penetrate right through objects such as copper, aluminum and wood, and could travel long distances.

Cutting-edge technology

Röntgen chose to call his discovery “X-radiation” or “X-rays,” as “X” is a symbol used in mathematics to represent the unknown.

Scientists and the general public alike were especially excited about the ability of X-rays to penetrate the human flesh, making bones visible. That said, for a long time after they were discovered and used, X-rays remained somewhat of a mystery, even to the scientific community.

The news went viral

Röntgen wrote an article about his new discovery, and on January 1, 1896, he sent copies of his article and some photos of X-rays to leading physicists around Europe. By January 5, it was front page news in Vienna’s leading newspaper, and on January 6, leading German newspapers covered the story.

The first report from the United Kingdom was also published on January 6 in the Daily Chronicle:

“A sensational discovery, which, if the reports are confirmed, is likely to be attended by imperial consequences for physical and medical science.”

Of course, any new technology must also have its skeptics. On January 11, The Lancet published an unflattering account of Röntgen’s new technology — but only one week later acknowledged that “the new discovery will produce quite a revolution in the present methods of examining the interior of the human body.”

Rapid medical adoption

Laboratories around the world adopted the new X-ray technology at a speedy space, performing their own experiments to refine the images.

X-rays were used in Canada to locate a bullet in a young man’s leg, and by the British Army on an expedition to the Nile to help diagnose bone fractures.

Personal data and privacy quickly became a hot topic

Of course, since the new technology was still not well understood, privacy became an issue because people worried that X-rays might be used to see through clothes!

In New York, legislation was even considered against the use of X-rays in opera glasses, for fear of intrusive peeping Toms.

X-rays created a new area of medicine

Brain vessels seen through AlluraClarity, a modern interventional X-ray

Röntgen’s unprecedented finding earned him the first ever Nobel Prize for Physics in 1901 for his “discovery of the remarkable rays.”

Today, X-rays are but one of the modern medical tools available to radiologists to diagnose and treat disease. Other imaging techniques developed after the X-ray include ultrasounds, CT (computed tomography) scans, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and digital mammography.

Long tumor needle planning seen through a CT XperGuide

In fact, Philips’ radiology solutions are used throughout the world to provide high-quality imaging to help doctors make important decisions about patient care. For instance, see how these radiology solutions are used by one Cleveland-area community hospital. And to think it all started by accident by a lone scientist more than 120 years ago — one of the first disruptive technologies, still in use today.

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