In mid-January 1896, a few days after Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s discovery, the first physicians began using X-rays in certain examinations. The age-old dream of the “glass patient” had suddenly come true. Almost from one day to the next, many diagnostic procedures were utterly transformed. But the “physicians of phototherapy” – as the radiologists soon came to be known – faced a series of technical obstacles: “For beginners, the correct handling of the tubes can prove quite a challenge,” wrote the pioneering radiologist Heinrich Albers-Schönberg. “Many tubes were damaged by unwanted sparkover – in other words, disruptive discharge.”
Occasionally, the tubes shattered “with a loud bang, spreading tiny fragments of glass in all directions.” Albers-Schönberg therefore suggested covering the patient’s face with a cloth “to protect their eyes in the event that the tube should smash.” This problem was compounded by the fact that the tubes in those days were originally designed for studying gases and either couldn’t produce X-rays at all or required great dexterity, a sufficient knowledge of physics, or sheer luck on the part of the user.
Until the X-rays were discovered, the Erlangen-based company Reiniger, Gebbert & Schall (RGS) – which specialized in medical technology and is the second-oldest predecessor of Siemens Healthineers, after Siemens & Halske – focused on building therapeutic apparatus such as light baths and electrotherapy devices. Three days after the discovery was announced, Max Gebbert, the owner of RGS, dispatched one of his employees, an engineer by the name of Robert Fischer, to Würzburg. Fischer had instructions to visit Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen and discuss his findings. However, a file in the Siemens Healthineers MedArchiv reveals that “Röntgen did not receive Mr. Fischer, as he was refusing visits altogether.” Instead, he referred Robert Fischer to one of his assistants, who “demonstrated the very modest apparatus to Mr. Fischer in operation.” Following Fischer’s report, Max Gebbert enlisted the help of privy councilor Eilhard Wiedemann, a physicist at the University of Erlangen who already had some experience with similar tubes to those used by Röntgen in his discovery. Wiedemann recommended several experimental setups and proposed to Gebbert that RGS take on his young assistant, the electrical engineer Josef Rosenthal.
“I conducted my first experiments with the cathode ray tubes used in physics laboratories,” Rosenthal later recalled of this pioneering era of X-ray technology at RGS. “As no one had any concept of the true nature of X-rays at that time, we tested every possibility, including whether the mysterious rays could be produced by overloading the filament of an ordinary light bulb. A number of light bulbs were burned out in the process – naturally, to no avail.” Soon, Rosenthal realized that “the key to producing good X-rays was a particularly well-suited tube, and I succeeded in producing some outstandingly beautiful X-rays using such tubes in 1896.” Josef Rosenthal used this type of X-ray tube, which was designed specifically for medical use, to create an image of a living 16-year-old girl’s head – and sent the resulting radiograph to Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen in Würzburg. A few days later, RGS received what was probably the most pleasing postcard in the company’s history.
“Your tubes are really very good”
“Esteemed Sir,” Röntgen wrote on November 3, 1896. “My sincerest thanks for the very pleasing photograph of a head you dispatched to me. Pray send me, at your earliest possible convenience and for the account of the local physical institute, two vacuum tubes of your construction (together with instructions for use). Very respectfully yours Prof. W.C. Röntgen.”
Rosenthal immediately dispatched two tubes and, some three weeks later, heard from Röntgen again – this time by letter and in rather more detail: “Your tubes are really very good,” Röntgen began his letter. But they were too expensive for his limited budget at the time. “I would like to ask whether you are able to let me have the tubes for twenty instead of thirty marks.” He believed this suggestion may be acceptable to RGS, as it was a special case “and you may be interested in having more orders from me. In case you should agree to this proposition, I should like to ask you to send four tubes of the same quality as the ones which I have used, two of the smaller and two of the larger size.” The suggestion must indeed have been acceptable to Reiniger, Gebbert & Schall – although this can no longer be confirmed from the archives – for Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was holding one of the smaller RGS tubes in his hand when he posed as a model for a monument that was to be erected on the Potsdam Bridge in Berlin.
From 1897 onward, RGS advertised the tube in the world’s first ever catalog of X-ray equipment. Sales of this X-ray equipment rapidly became a huge success: In 1898, RGS was already employing three times as many people as it did before the discovery of the X-ray – and had to expand its factory, which was still just a few years old, in order to keep pace with the huge demand.