X-rays of the hands of King George and Queen Mary, 1896.

The Roentgen Society collection of X-ray tubes

X-rays were discovered by Professor W C Rontgen (1845-1923) on the evening of Friday 8 November 1895 while he was engaged on the study of cathode rays. Telling no-one, he studied the new phenomenon for seven weeks before submitting a paper on the discovery to the Physical Medical Society of Wurzburg. An English translation was published in Britain in January 1896 and within a few weeks the news of the discovery had spread throughout the world. In London the following year a group of people interested in the subject decided to form a society for the study of X-rays and named it the ‘Rontgen Society’. Eventually, in 1927, the Rontgen Society merged with the British Institute of Radiology, which flourishes to this day.

As well as studying the new science, the Rontgen Society was concerned to ensure that its progress would be properly illustrated. They began to acquire examples of some of the earliest experimental X-ray tubes including those used in the late 1890s by British pioneers such as Sir William Crookes and Professor A A Campbell Swinton. This was important, because the fragility of this type of glassware meant that without such action these tubes would probably have been lost to posterity. In 1907 the Rontgen Society suggested that the Science Museum might wish to take over the collection, now comprising over 60 tubes and fluorescent screens. The Museum was in agreement and received it in 1909. The Rontgen Society continued its work and in 1932 the British Institute of Radiology passed over another 25 or so historical items. The initiative of the Rontgen Society and its successor has ensured that the Science Museum has a world-class and comprehensive collection of the pioneering artefacts of a discovery that revolutionised medical science.