The earliest experimenter thought to have (unknowingly) produced X-rays was actuary William Morgan. In 1785 he presented a paper to the Royal Society of London describing the effects of passing electrical currents through a partially evacuated glass tube, producing a glow created by X-rays. This work was further explored by Humphry Davy and his assistant Michael Faraday.
Before their discovery in 1895, X-rays were just a type of unidentified radiation emanating from experimental discharge tubes. They were noticed by scientists investigating cathode rays produced by such tubes, which are energetic electron beams that were first observed in 1869.
Many of the early Crookes tubes (invented around 1875) undoubtedly radiated X-rays, because early researchers noticed effects that were attributable to them, voltage accelerated the electrons coming from the cathode to a high enough velocity that they created X-rays when they struck the anode or the glass wall of the tube.
Hermann von Helmholtz formulated mathematical equations for X-rays. He postulated a dispersion theory before Röntgen made his discovery and announcement. It was formed on the basis of the electromagnetic theory of light. However, he did not work with actual X-rays.
Starting in 1888, Philipp Lenard conducted experiments to see whether cathode rays could pass out of the Crookes tube into the air. He built a Crookes tube with a "window" in the end made of thin aluminum, facing the cathode so the cathode rays would strike it (later called a "Lenard tube"). He found that something came through, that would expose photographic plates and cause fluorescence. He measured the penetrating power of these rays through various materials. It has been suggested that at least some of these "Lenard rays" were actually X-rays.
In 1889 Ukrainian-born Ivan Puluj, a lecturer in experimental physics at the Prague Polytechnic who since 1877 had been constructing various designs of gas-filled tubes to investigate their properties, published a paper on how sealed photographic plates became dark when exposed to the emanations from the tubes.
On November 8, 1895, German physics professor Wilhelm Röntgen stumbled on X-rays while experimenting with Lenard tubes and Crookes tubes and began studying them.
On December 28, 1895 submitted it to Würzburg's Physical-Medical Society journal. This was the first paper written on X-rays. Röntgen referred to the radiation as "X", to indicate that it was an unknown type of radiation. The name stuck, although (over Röntgen's great objections) many of his colleagues suggested calling them Röntgen rays.
Röntgen immediately noticed X-rays could have medical applications. Along with his 28 December Physical-Medical Society submission he sent a letter to physicians he knew around Europe (January 1, 1896).
Scottish electrical engineer Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton is the first after Röntgen to create an X-ray (of a hand). Through February there were 46 experimenters taking up the technique in North America alone.
The first use of X-rays under clinical conditions was by John Hall-Edwards in Birmingham, England on 11 January 1896, when he radiographed a needle stuck in the hand of an associate.
The first medical X-ray made in the United States was obtained using a discharge tube of Pului's design. In January 1896, on reading of Röntgen's discovery, Frank Austin of Dartmouth College tested all of the discharge tubes in the physics laboratory and found that only the Pului tube produced X-rays.
In early 1896, several weeks after Röntgen's discovery, Ivan Romanovich Tarkhanov irradiated frogs and insects with X-rays, concluding that the rays "not only photograph, but also affect the living function"
On 3 February 1896 Gilman Frost, professor of medicine at the college, and his brother Edwin Frost, professor of physics, exposed the wrist of Eddie McCarthy, whom Gilman had treated some weeks earlier for a fracture, to the X-rays and collected the resulting image of the broken bone on gelatin photographic plates obtained from Howard Langill, a local photographer also interested in Röntgen's work.
On February 5, 1896 live imaging devices were developed by both Italian scientist Enrico Salvioni (his "cryptoscope") and Professor McGie of Princeton University (his "Skiascope"), both using barium platinocyanide.
On February 14, 1896, Hall-Edwards was also the first to use X-rays in a surgical operation.
American inventor Thomas Edison started research soon after Röntgen's discovery and investigated materials' ability to fluoresce when exposed to X-rays, finding that calcium tungstate was the most effective substance. In May 1896 he developed the first mass-produced live imaging device, his "Vitascope", later called the fluoroscope, which became the standard for medical X-ray examinations.
In August 1896 Dr. HD. Hawks, a graduate of Columbia College, suffered severe hand and chest burns from an x-ray demonstration. It was reported in Electrical Review and led to many other reports of problems associated with x-rays being sent in to the publication.
Many physicians claimed there were no effects from X-ray exposure at all. On August 3, 1905 at San Francisco, California, Elizabeth Fleischman, American X-ray pioneer, died from complications as a result of her work with X-rays
In about 1906, the physicist Charles Barkla discovered that X-rays could be scattered by gases, and that each element had a characteristic X-ray spectrum. He won the 1917 Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery.
In 1912, Max von Laue, Paul Knipping, and Walter Friedrich first observed the diffraction of X-rays by crystals. This discovery, along with the early work of Paul Peter Ewald, William Henry Bragg, and William Lawrence Bragg, gave birth to the field of X-ray crystallography.
In 1913, Henry Moseley performed crystallography experiments with X-rays emanating from various metals and formulated Moseley's law which relates the frequency of the X-rays to the atomic number of the metal.
The Coolidge X-ray tube was invented by William D. Coolidge. It made possible the continuous emissions of X-rays. Modern X-ray tubes are based on this design, often employing the use of rotating targets which allow for significantly higher heat dissipation than static targets, further allowing higher quantity X-ray output for use in high powered applications such as rotational CT scanners.
In 1914 Marie Curie developed radiological cars to support soldiers injured in World War I. The cars would allow for rapid X-ray imaging of wounded soldiers so battlefield surgeons could quickly and more accurately operate.
In 1904, John Ambrose Fleming invented the thermionic diode, the first kind of vacuum tube. This used a hot cathode that caused an electric current to flow in a vacuum. This idea was quickly applied to X-ray tubes, and hence heated-cathode X-ray tubes, called "Coolidge tubes", completely replaced the troublesome cold cathode tubes by about 1920.
From the 1920s through to the 1950s, X-ray machines were developed to assist in the fitting of shoes and were sold to commercial shoe stores
An X-ray laser device was proposed as part of the Reagan Administration's Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s, but the only test of the device (a sort of laser "blaster" or death ray, powered by a thermonuclear explosion) gave inconclusive results. For technical and political reasons, the overall project (including the X-ray laser) was de-funded (though was later revived by the second Bush Administration as National Missile Defense using different technologies).
The Chandra X-ray Observatory, launched on July 23, 1999, has been allowing the exploration of the very violent processes in the universe which produce X-rays. Unlike visible light, which gives a relatively stable view of the universe, the X-ray universe is unstable. It features stars being torn apart by black holes, galactic collisions, and novae, and neutron stars that build up layers of plasma that then explode into space.
It is estimated that 0.4% of current cancers in the United States are due to computed tomography (CT scans) performed in the past and that this may increase to as high as 1.5-2% with 2007 rates of CT usage.