At the heart of “X-ray fever”

16.11.2020 | How the discovery of X-rays changed the Nuremberg metropolitan region and the world

On November 8, 1895, “late in the evening, when not a soul was left in the laboratory to lend a hand,” Würzburg physics professor Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was preparing one of his experiments. Röntgen wants to test the luminosity of gases by using an electric current to generate gas discharges in a vacuum tube made of glass. He darkens his laboratory, wraps the glass tube in black paper, switches on the power – and his gaze falls on a trivial, seemingly insignificant phenomenon: a fluorescent screen, which happens to be lying on a table next to the light-proof tube, begins to glow green in the darkness of the laboratory. Even wood, paper notebooks and a 1000 page tome cannot stop the strange rays, but platinum and lead can. Röntgen thrusts his hand into the rays and makes probably the most exciting discovery of his life: on the fluorescent screen, he sees the shadows of his own hand bones!

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen
Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen im Jahr 1900
Handknochen mit Ehering
© Deutsches Röntgen-Museum
Das aufsehenerregendste der ersten Röntgenbilder: Bertha Röntgens Handknochen mit Ehering

What happens after the announcement of the sensational discovery of these “X-rays” is unprecedented in the history of science up to that point. Never before has a news item spread around the world so quickly. By mid-January 1896, the whole world is in “X-ray fever.” Everything imaginable is X-rayed: wallets, mummies, furniture – and above all the human body. Scientists, physicians and engineers immediately set to work to improve the technology and enable new applications.

And from the very beginning, the Nuremberg metropolitan region stands as one of the world’s foremost centers for X-ray technology development. Over the 125 years that have passed since the discovery of X-rays, countless helpful and fascinating applications of X-ray technology were invented here. For example, important foundations of modern three-dimensional imaging go back to the mathematician Johann Radon, who started teaching at the University of Erlangen in 1925. It was two global players from the region, who have driven and shaped X-ray technology from the very beginning, who gave these foundations practical form: the X-ray Technology Development Center of the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS and the medical technology manufacturer Siemens Healthineers.

Röntgenbild eines Gewichtssatzes
© Röntgen-Gedächtnisstätte Würzburg
Röntgenbild eines Gewichtssatzes im Inneren eines Kästchens, aufgenommen von Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen kurz nach der Entdeckung der X-Strahlen
Originalaufnahme des ersten in Erlangen gebauten Röntgenapparates, 1897
Originalaufnahme des ersten in Erlangen gebauten Röntgenapparates, 1897

A murmur of amazement in Erlangen

The companies Siemens & Halske of Berlin and Reiniger, Gebbert & Schall (RGS) of Erlangen – the two oldest roots of Siemens Healthineers – are competitors when Röntgen presents his discovery to the public. Until 1925, the year in which RGS merged with the Siemens medical technology business, the two companies would compete to produce the most advanced medical technology – and from 1896 onward, this race would revolve primarily around X-ray technology development. Just three days after the discovery is announced, RGS sends an engineer from Erlangen to nearby Würzburg. In the pioneering days of medical X-ray technology at Reiniger, Gebbert & Schall, “a murmur of amazement went through the ranks of workers,” writes an RGS employee in his memoirs. “The company immediately took up this field quite vigorously and tried to manufacture ready-to-use apparatus and equipment.” Meanwhile, in Berlin, Siemens files the world’s first patent application for an X-ray tube on March 24, 1896.

In the 125 years that followed, the Nuremberg metropolitan region remained one of the world’s leading centers for medical X-ray technology development – not least because the Siemens medical technology business moved from Berlin to Erlangen after the merger. Numerous innovations that paved the way to today’s high-end systems were developed in Erlangen or at the Siemens Healthineers plant in Forchheim. For example, the Siemens Healthineers Somatom Force, the world’s most powerful medical computed tomography scanner, developed in Forchheim, can visualize body structures that are smaller than 0.25 millimeters.

Somatom Force
© Siemens Healthineers
Das in Forchheim entwickelte und hergestellte Siemens Healthineers Somatom Force
Cinematic-Rendering eines Patienten
© Radiologie im Israelitischen Krankenhaus, Hamburg, Germany
Abbildung eines Patienten mit dem Cinematic-Rendering-Verfahren von Siemens Healthineers

These days, a patient’s internal structures can be imaged in photorealistic quality using the cinematic rendering method, which was also developed in the region. And the importance of the Nuremberg metropolitan region for medical X-ray technology development will continue to grow in the future: Siemens Healthineers is investing around 350 million euros over the next few years to build a state-of-the-art factory for medical technology components and a new development and logistics center on the Healthineers Campus in Forchheim to complement the existing facilities.


Computed tomography also plays a central role at the Fraunhofer Development Center X-ray Technology EZRT in Fürth, a division of the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS. Here, 150 researchers are working to expand the existing areas of application for X-ray technology with a view to developing completely new solutions. In contrast to Siemens Healthineers, the focus of development at Fraunhofer EZRT is on industrial X-ray technology. Even today, 125 years after their discovery, the immense innovation potential that X-rays hold is still far from exhausted.

In the institute’s technical center, employees conduct research on a wide variety of X-ray systems. The infrastructure on-site ranges from an extremely high-resolution X-ray microscope, which can be used to examine even hair-thin objects, to extremely portable systems that are hardly larger than a microwave, to ultra-modern RoboCT systems in which the X-ray components are attached to industrial robots that correspond with each other, offering enormous flexibility of use.

© Fraunhofer IIS/Paul Pulkert
Mit der Unterstützung von Roboterarmen kann RoboCT gezielt einzelne Bereiche großer Prüfobjekte untersuchen, z. B. die A-Säule eines Fahrzeugs.
© Fraunhofer IIS/Paul Pulkert
Mit dem XXL-CT System am Fraunhofer EZRT lassen sich selbst endmontierte Fahrzeuge und riesige Frachtcontainer tomographieren.

X-ray technologies developed at Fraunhofer EZRT can also monitor entire manufacturing processes. Where once quality control had to be carried out manually, X-ray systems in combination with intelligent software can now help establish reject-free production. But X-ray systems are used not only in production environments, they can also be found along the value chain at all stages of the product life cycle: from quality control for raw materials to material differentiation in the recycling process.

For a long time, on account of the limited power of X-ray sources, computed tomography was restricted to smaller objects that were easy to penetrate. Now, the development of what is known as XXL computed tomography, which uses a Siemens Healthineers linear accelerator as an X-ray source and has a suitably dimensioned X-ray camera, is introducing X-rays to completely new areas of application. This one-of-a-kind system opens up a new vista in the three-dimensional acquisition and analysis of large, complex components with dimensions in the meter range, such as fully assembled automobiles. These many possibilities have garnered worldwide attention and recognition in the domains of product development and quality assurance and also in the digitalization of historical artifacts.

Global players in the Nuremberg metropolitan region

All these examples show that “X-ray fever” rages on in the Nuremberg metropolitan region. Even today, the curiosity of our researchers is still what drives the technologies, just as it was with the X-ray pioneers of 1896. Not least thanks to innovations of global significance on the part of strong brands such as Siemens Healthineers, Fraunhofer IIS and Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, our metropolitan region is right at the top of many innovation rankings – the art of innovation from the heart of the Nuremberg metropolitan region. 


Thomas Kestler

Contact Press / Media

Thomas Kestler

Division Communications

Fraunhofer IIS
Flugplatzstraße 75
90768 Fürth, Germany

Phone +49 911 58061-7611


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