History Of The Geiger Counter: Radiation and Readouts

History Of The Geiger Counter: Radiation and Readouts

by James Walton

When you hear "Geiger counter," you probably think about people in HAZMAT suits. With all that is happening between Ukraine, Russia, and the world at large, the Geiger counter is definitely a piece of the solution for surviving nuclear war.

Truth is, measuring radiation is an integral part of many industries. Radiation is dangerous to people, and it is also naturally occurring. Mineral prospecting, geological exploration, and environmental monitoring depend on reliable devices that accurately measure a radiological threat. Geiger counters are also in experiments and, of course, the nuclear power industry.

Returning to Marie Curie, we will explore some of the earliest studies of radiation and its effects, which led to Hans Geiger and Walther Muller creating what we know as the modern Geiger counter.

We will also look at the modern Geiger counter of today and see how much these devices have shrunk and how much more effective they are. Is a Geiger counter the right thing for you? You'll know by the end of this article.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    History of Radiation Experiments and Hans Geiger

  • 02

    How Does a Geiger Counter Work?

  • 03

    Common Uses of Geiger Counters

  • 04

    The Future of Radiation Detection and Geiger Counters

  • 05


  • 06

    Frequently Asked Questions

History of Radiation Experiments and Hans Geiger

It's mind-blowing when you start to piece together everything we have discovered in such a short period. We have made some incredible advancements, but when you talk about radiation and nuclear energy, you have to understand that it wasn't until 1896 that Henri Becquerel posited that the atom was not indivisible and was more than just a station for electrons to revolve around.


In fact, it was Becquerel who proposed that every atom housed immense amounts of energy. While Einstein and Oppenheimer get a lot of credit for the nuclear bomb, it is wild when you consider that in just over 45 years, we went from denying the potential of the atom to harnessing its full power to create peace among the superpowers and produce efficient electricity all over the world.

1903 CURIE

The uranium studies conducted by Marie Curie began as part of her doctoral thesis. In doing so, she effectively discovered radioactivity. This was, at the time, a phenomenon caused by the atomic decay of an element like uranium.

These studies also led her and her husband, Pierre, to work together to discover polonium and radium. With all their experience with radioactive elements, the couple received Nobel prizes in 1903 and 1911 for their discoveries of radioactivity, measuring radioactivity, and the discovery of the two elements.


Hans Geiger and Walter Muller were already deep into their study of radiation and measuring radioactive particles when they created their gas-filled ionization detector. This instrument was designed to detect "coincidences" when stacked atop each other, and these coincidences were used to show the direction of cosmic rays at the time.

Upon the first trial of the gas-filled ionization detector, they found success. Before using the gas, they attempted the process by shutting the lights off and forcing electrons off the atom to bounce around.

Hans Geiger's life was primarily a study of one kind or another in the field of radioactive particles. Geiger was very unique because he spent a lot of his time collaborating with other scientists. The Curies were a couple, but it is not so common that we see so much collaboration in a scientist's life and throughout his many achievements.

Despite his creation of the Geiger counter, Hans was no angel. He was a German scientist during the time of the Third Reich. In fact, Hans was one of the scientists working tirelessly toward the end of the war to produce an atomic bomb for the German military.

Ironically, his work would go on to save countless non-Aryan men and women worldwide using the Geiger counter.

How Does a Geiger Counter Work?

The Geiger-Muller detector was an interesting little instrument that depended on these gas-filled tubes to register powerful enough gamma rays. Geiger and Muller knew that powerful enough gamma rays would knock an electron off the atom. When that electron was knocked free, it would simultaneously create the "coincidence" that was observable in both tubes.

Interestingly, this basic gas-filled electron detection system stuck and was employed in Geiger counters for a very long time. The modern Geiger counter works very similarly to the original, but some steps and meters are added to make it more accurate and user-friendly. The process is as follows:

  • The radiation particles enter the tube, often through a window.

  • The radiation knocks electrons off the atoms of inert gas, creating free electrons and positively charged gas.

  • Inside is a positively charged wire the electrons rush to that wire which feeds into the meter. The ions flow toward the negatively charged tube wall. Heading towards the wall, the ions crash into and ionize more gas, creating an electric pulse.

  • The pulse is what travels to the meter and influences the reading. This could be the clicking sound or a digital read on more modern Geiger counters.

(Earl Scime, a professor of physics and astronomy at West Virginia University, tells Popular Mechanics. "Every smoke detector is a Geiger counter, essentially. It detects alpha particles coming from a radioactive source in the smoke detector, and when smoke gets in the way of those particles getting to the detector … the signal goes away and the alarm sounds.")

Geiger Counters: Measuring Radiation Through Clicking Sounds

Factors That Affect Geiger Readings

The process a Geiger counter operates on is known as ionization. Most Geiger counters use this process to detect gamma and alpha particles, and some modern models even detect X-ray and beta particles.

The affected area will have alpha, beta, and gamma particles following a nuclear blast. The EPA is the responsible governing body when it comes to protecting the public from radiation, both natural and industrial. The EPA describes the threats from each individual type of radiation as follows.


Alpha particles come from the decay of the heaviest radioactive elements, such as uranium, radium, and polonium.


Beta-emitters are most hazardous when they are inhaled or swallowed.


Gamma rays are often emitted along with alpha or beta particles during radioactive decay.

As you can imagine not all conditions get the same type of readings when using a Geiger counter, and you must choose the right conditions and counter to measure the particles you are most concerned with.

The factors that have the most significant effect on a Geiger counters readings are things like elevation. Higher elevations give higher counts of radiation. There are other factors, too. The shape of the detector can affect the readings, and the type of inert gas in the chamber can affect readings, too.

Common Uses of Geiger Counters

To some readers, a Geiger counter might seem like an instrument that should only be used by the military or stored in the basements and bunkers of preppers and survivalists. The reality is that our society deals with radiation and radioactive materials a lot more than you think.

If you have been in the hospital, visited the dentist, or visited the doctor recently, you have been around or even been subjected to radioactive materials. Some are used for diagnosis, others to take X-rays, and even to treat cancerous tumors. While these industries may not all use Geiger counters to measure radiation, it is essential to know just how common and useful radioactive particles have become.

Geiger counters make their way into many industries just for the sheer ability to protect people from walking into highly radiated locations.


Modern Applications

In industries, Geiger counters are used for a wide range of applications. Geiger counters are used in nuclear power plants for radiation monitoring and personnel safety. They are used to measure radiation levels in different plant areas, detect any abnormal increase in radiation levels, and ensure that workers are not exposed to harmful radiation. Frankly, we couldn't operate these facilities without top-notch radiation detection.

Geiger counters are used in medical facilities for radiation therapy and diagnostic procedures. They are used to measure the amount of radiation delivered to patients during radiation therapy to ensure that the prescribed dose is administered accurately. In diagnostic procedures, Geiger counters detect radioactive tracers introduced into the body for imaging purposes, such as in positron emission tomography (PET) scans.

Geiger counters are used for various purposes in research labs, such as studying radioactive materials, monitoring radiation levels in experiments, and verifying the integrity of sealed radioactive sources.

In manufacturing plants, Geiger counters are used to check for the presence of radioactive contamination in products or equipment.

In environmental monitoring, Geiger counters are used to measure background radiation levels, assess radiation levels in soil, water, and air samples, and detect any abnormal environmental radiation releases, such as from nuclear accidents or incidents.

These instruments are in use all around us and they are constantly working to keep us safe so we can take advantage of the multi-industrial and research capabilities of radioactive materials. We could not be the species we are today with the advancements in so many areas without using these hazardous materials and the ability to measure them.

The Future of Radiation Detection and Geiger Counters

The most evident trend in radiation technology is the shrinking size of instruments used for detection. Geiger counters have gotten smaller and smaller over time, and you can now buy a Geiger counter larger than a full-sized ballpoint pen!

The need for those large yellow handheld devices is basically coming to an end. The technology and the process are the same, but we need less inert gas, and we have better sensors for conveying readings. We have incredible interfaces for showing readings. Every aspect of the Geiger counter has been improved, as would be expected.

A great example of this is the MIRA Safety Geiger-2.

What is the MIRA Safety Geiger-2

MIRA Safety Geiger-2 Dosimeter / Geiger Counter / Radiation Detector

We're exposed to background radiation every day of our lives. While some radiation exposure is natural, higher concentrations can result from poorly shielded electronic equipment, X-rays, CT scans, or air travel.

Beyond the substantial threat of nuclear meltdowns, disasters, and fallout, this excess background radiation can add up over the years and contribute to serious health issues.

Fortunately, a practical solution you can take everywhere to monitor and measure your exposure is the MIRA Safety Geiger-2 Portable Dosimeter/ Geiger Counter.

Only slightly larger than a ballpoint pen, the Geiger-2 is a full-featured handheld dosimeter that offers the same reliability as a professional-grade Geiger counter at a fraction of the price and without the bulk. It's built from impact-resistant polymer and has an easy-to-read LCD screen with two buttons, making it one of the most straightforward and user-friendly dosimeters on the market today.

Unlike analog Geiger counters, the Geiger-2 is fully digital with various advantageous features and modes. Customizable settings for exposure tolerances and long-term tracking of readings provide unrivaled clarity and customizability for multiple situations. Power management features can be used to optimize battery life and manage the included solar panel.

Best of all, the Geiger-2 tucks easily into a pocket, purse, or backpack, so it's always ready when you need it—providing a potentially life-saving tool that makes you more aware of your environment and prepared to face a range of twenty-first-century threats. The first step toward protecting yourself from background radiation is identifying it with a reliable radiation meter.

The Geiger-2 is powered by an internal rechargeable LiPo battery with a 30-day extended battery life. Recharging takes just two hours.

Space Exploration

Elon Musk and SpaceX have genuinely changed the game regarding our trajectory as a space-faring species. Almost everything is on the table, from planetary exploration to asteroid mining. We are going to be up there, and we are going to be doing things that put us in the way of radiation.

Geiger counters are invaluable tools in space exploration. These devices play a crucial role in measuring and monitoring radiation levels in space, helping to ensure the safety of astronauts and spacecraft during missions beyond Earth's atmosphere.

One of the primary applications of Geiger counters in space exploration is the detection of ionizing radiation. Space is filled with various forms of radiation, such as cosmic rays, solar flares, and particles from interstellar space. These high-energy particles can pose a significant health risk to astronauts, as they can penetrate spacecraft and human tissue, potentially causing DNA damage and other harmful effects.

Geiger counters can detect these ionizing radiation particles and provide real-time measurements of their intensity and energy levels. This information is critical in determining the potential radiation exposure of astronauts during space missions. This tech will only become more integrated as we do more in space. The more we know about the radiation around us, the quicker we can react to keep astronauts safe.

Geiger counters are also used inside spacecraft to monitor environmental radiation levels. This data helps scientists and engineers design and develop spacecraft better equipped to withstand the harsh space radiation environment.

For example, sensitive electronic equipment on board spacecraft can be shielded or placed in areas with lower radiation levels to prevent damage or malfunction. Geiger counters are also used to monitor radiation levels on planetary surfaces during space exploration missions, such as on the Moon or Mars, to assess potential hazards to human explorers and to guide mission planning and decision-making.

In addition to radiation monitoring, Geiger counters also have applications in detecting radioactive materials in space. For instance, in missions that involve studying asteroids, comets, or other celestial bodies, Geiger counters can help identify the presence of radioactive elements, which can provide valuable insights into the composition and history of these objects.

Geiger counters can also be used to detect radioactive leaks or contamination in space habitats or spacecraft, helping to ensure the safety and well-being of astronauts.

The Geiger counter will become increasingly more important as we send people and spacecraft further out into space. It may even evolve to measure types of radiation that we don't even know exist! Who knows what could be lurking inside an asteroid that happens on our planet from outside the solar system.

The Future of Medical Imaging

Medical advancements are staggering in this modern age, and we are in a new era of 3D rendering with our x rays technology thanks in part to radiation detection and to computers that can take detailed information from X-rays and piece them together to give us a complete 3D rendering of the inside of a person's body.

The idea is to be able to look at a tumor in 3D to better understand the course of action to take. This is the future of medical diagnosis and will be a mainstream technology in the near future. We are also making the jump from X-ray film to DR or digital rendering that uses advanced sensors to get better readings and to digitally develop the X-ray information into a better and more effective X-ray of the human body.

Besides the enhanced resolution, DR technology operates on much less radiation exposure than traditional X-ray. This means our healthcare professionals and their patients are exposed to less daily radiation, which is very important to their health.

Monitoring Environments

As this technology gets, smaller and more affordable businesses and governments will be better able to monitor ionization in their environments. Places like nuclear power plants and laboratories all require some measure of radiation detection.

We can also better understand the natural world using Geiger counters to detect ionization. Remember, radiation is not a man-made problem; these elements and particles naturally occur here on Earth.

Advanced versions of the Geiger technology will be used not only for the development of environments for use by humans but also for nursing damaged environments back to health that have been affected adversely by radiation either through human intervention or from a natural source.

As you can see, the Geiger counter is for so much more than just the chance that a nuclear war kicks off. While nuclear power is very safe compared to other forms of energy, it is nice to have a Geiger counter if you live near a nuclear power plant just to ensure you are safe should there be a meltdown.

Radiation is one of those incredible discoveries that can literally save lives in the correct dose and take lives if too much is absorbed. Industries will become more efficient and more effective with the use of radiation and the detection of radioactive particles.

Modern Geiger counter technology like the Geiger-2 by MIRA Safety is the future of radiation detection. These devices will continue to shrink and likely be built into wearable technology so that everyone carries radiation detection devices if they want to.

Though Hans Geiger was a filthy Nazi-supporting monster bent on handing nuclear weapons capabilities to the Third Reich, his discovery of "coincidences" in inert gas gave way to one of the most effective tools for measuring radiation. Even the most modern Geiger counters, though they have different modes and readouts, still detect radiation through small tubes of inert gas and the electrical circuit created when electrons get bounced loose.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I travel with a Geiger counter?
How hard is it to use a Geiger counter?
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What is a Geiger counter?
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What is a Geiger counter used to measure?
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