The dangers of being a 19th-century x-ray fiend
X-Ray Specs — the cheap glasses that ostensibly allow you to see the bones in your own hand and/or ladies' undergarments — are instantly familiar to anybody who read comic books in the 20th century. Last week, The Onion AV Club shared a fascinating video showing that immature gags about x-ray vision began long before the Marvel Comics' advertising department was even a glimmer in somebody's eye.
"The X-Ray Fiend" was a short film produced in 1897 — just two years after William Rontgen gave x-rays their name. It's basically an X-Ray Specs gag writ large, with the aforementioned fiend checking out the insides of a necking couple. You can watch it at The Onion.
That video sent me toodling around through some of the fascinating history surrounding x-rays in pop culture. Rontgen wasn't the first to discovery x-rays, but he was the first person to really study them in depth and his x-ray photograph of his wife's hand kicked off a public sensation. To give you an idea of how into x-rays everybody was for a while, the AV Club story actually includes a link to a 19th century Scientific American how-to that promised to teach the reader to make their own x-ray machine at home. You know. For funsies.
It's kind of crazy how popular x-rays became, considering how dangerous they can be. The Scientific American piece, for instance, now comes with a 21st century disclaimer warning that "Many operators of the early x-ray systems experienced severe damage to hands over time, often necessitating amputations or other surgery." Which brings us to Clarence Dally ...
In 1895, Dally was working for Thomas Edison, one of the enthusiastic engineers clocking 90-hour work weeks in Edison's proto-Silicon Valley tech startup. He jumped into x-ray research, attempting to take the new discovery from parlor toy to medical tool. But, in the process, Dally managed to expose himself (repeatedly, and for hours at a time) to levels of radiation that were, by today's standards, incredibly high. Within five years, he had made himself very sick. Here's a Smithsonian story, describing what happened to Dally:
By 1900, he began to show lesions and degenerative skin conditions on his hands and face. His hair began to fall out, then his eyebrows and eyelashes, too. Soon his face was heavily wrinkled, and his left hand was especially swollen and painful. Like a faithful mucker committed to science, Dally found what he thought was the solution to prevent further damage to his left hand: He began using his right hand instead. The result might have been predictable. At night, he slept with both hands in water to alleviate the burning. Like many researchers at the time, Dally assumed he’d heal with rest and time away from the tubes.
By the following year, the pain in Dally’s hands was becoming intolerable, and they looked, some people said, as if they’d been scalded. Dally had skin grafted from his leg to his left hand several times, but the lesions remained. When evidence of carcinoma appeared on his left arm, Dally agreed to have it amputated just below his shoulder.
It took stories like this to turn average people off from being home x-ray fiends.
• Read the story of Clarence Dally at Smithsonian
• The Onion AV Club, Best Films of the 1890s
• Scientific American shows you how to build an x-ray machine, which you really should not do