When Was the First X-Ray Discovered?

When the x-ray appeared at the very end of 19th century, it arrived with a bang. Immediately upon its discovery, the x-ray became a source of fervent fascination among scientists, who raced to be the first to write or discover something new about this revolutionary tool. Tragically, x-ray history includes some severe, unintended consequences.

The first American book on x-rays appeared in 1896, authored by William J. Morton a short 9 months after the x-ray was discovered by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen of Wurzburg, Germany in 1895. The first application of x-rays in dentistry was July 1896, marked by two significant events: the intraoral fluoroscope was invented by William H. Rollins, and Dr. Charles Edmund Kells Jr. taught the first clinic on the use of x-rays in dentistry.

Dr. Kells would go on to be fascinated by the science of x-rays, as well as electricity. He wanted to contribute to the evolving knowledge of these yet poorly understood tools, and their application to his work as a dentist. His passion for x-rays would cost him dearly. Kells became one of the most noted of a handful of “x-ray martyrs”: those who risked life and limb in the name of advancing science.


An early Ritter x-ray unit from the 1920s, courtesy of the museum at Benco Dental, Pittston.

Dr. Charles Edmund Kells Jr.: Dental Imaging Pioneer


Photo courtesy of Jeff Sengstack

Dr. Kells, born in New Orleans, was the son of a successful dentist. In 1876 he enrolled as a student at the New York Dental College. There he met and became friendly with technicians from Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory. He started to spend time in the lab and was fascinated by Edison’s efforts in early incandescent lighting and his experiments in electricity.

He could already see the applications for dentistry. It was a whole new untested frontier and he wanted to be at the forefront of it. When the Edison Electric Light Company began to supply power to major industries in New Orleans, Dr. Kells signed up for service, becoming the city’s first dentist to use street current to power his dental equipment. Kells wired his office himself and connected it to the power grid outside his office.

An Electrifying Chapter in X-Ray History


An advertisement of some of the many early dental equipment that was electrically powered.

Dr. Kells had high hopes for the uses of electricity, both in the dental office and elsewhere. Like Edison, his mind began to whirl with all sorts of new inventions, not the least of which was for an automatic electric suction pump which drained saliva, a wonderful invention that did away with using surgical sponges in both dentistry and general surgery. He also registered patents for other items powered by electricity, including an electric thermostat, a fire extinguisher, and a drinking fountain.

Between early electricity and early x-rays, the dental office was a minefield of dangers, some of which were recognized and others which had yet to appear.

While Dr. Kells’s ordeal with x-rays took time to be realized, he understood the dangers of electricity almost as soon as he hooked up his office. He was so worried about it, he sent a letter to the editor of The Dental Cosmos, the leading professional dental publication at the time, asking him about the risks in using electricity in the dental operatory.

Even as he did so, at the same time he sent a letter to S.S. White Dental Manufacturing Company, asking if they could make electric dental instruments for him.

The editor, Dr. Grier, responded:

“The use of commercial lighting current, as shown by the apparatus exhibited by you, their employment to give the light and heat needed and to actuate the motors employed in the dental office, opens up a fascinating and almost unlimited field of application.… Unfortunately, these currents, especially the light arc, possess an electromotive force and strength far beyond the needs of the case, and therein lies the risk of their employment.… THE POSSIBLE TRANSFERENCE OF THE CURRENT FROM THE APPARATUS TO THE PERSON OF THE OPERATOR OR THE PATIENT.…”

A 1915 S.S.White ad, featuring electrified equipment.

A 1915 S.S. White ad, featuring electrified equipment.

Electrifying & Deadly Developments

There had been a scare over electricity in New York City several years earlier and people were still not over it. Eventually though, people came to accept electricity in the dental office. Harder to overcome, was the deadly repercussions of all the x-ray experiments Dr. Kells had done, using his own hands.

Now, of course, we understand what happens to repeated exposure of body parts to x-ray: cancer.

In 1913, Kells installed the first commercial x-ray unit made especially for use in dentistry. Dr. Kells, in developing his groundbreaking use of x-rays in dentistry, had developed malignant growths on his left hand. It was the beginning of years of agony.

He later noted the dangers of radiation had been recognized even before then, and no knowledgeable doctor would hold a film in the mouth of his patient or in any way expose his hands to the direct rays. Eventually, he had to have the tips of his fingers of his left hand cut off. After more years of exposure, he had to have several fingers removed. That still did not stop the cancerous growths and by the late 1920s, he had to have his left arm amputated. In 1928, he died, brought about in part by the injuries sustained from radiation.


Early x-ray machines could be dangerous for more than their radiation. As Dr. Grier had indicated in his response to Kells in The Dental Cosmos, the electricity that powered these contraptions could also be hazardous. The exposed high-tension wires of these devices caused several serious accidents and a few fatalities by themselves.

An illustration of the freak accident that occurred in New York City many years earlier. This just compounded people's fear of electricity.

An illustration of the freak accident that occurred in New York City many years earlier. This just compounded people’s fear of electricity.

Radiology has since evolved far beyond these crude forms, and we have pioneers like Dr. Kells to thank. These scientists, inventors, and innovators helped make modern dentistry what it is today. By braving danger and poorly understood frontiers of science, they made changes that would forever change human health, helping dentistry evolve from a simple science to an essential part of our medical system.

Today, dentists now have a wealth of safe, efficient tools that make x-ray imaging a simple and routine practice in today’s modern dental offices. To learn more about recent advances and how Benco can bring your practice’s imaging technology up to date, contact an Equipment Specialist.