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


23 Responses to “The dangers of being a 19th-century x-ray fiend”

  1. sqyntz says:

    we’ll be saying the same thing about cell phone radiation in 50 years…

    • novium says:

       I kinda doubt it. We’ve learned a lot about radiation in the last century. Even if there is something, it’s unlikely to be equivalent, as we’ve had people with their phones glued to them 24/7 for years without them all ending up with weird burns and amputations.

    • Guy Gondron says:

      Not the same kind of radiation. That’s like saying we should all be dead from the radio by now.

    • Petzl says:

      Yeah, because we have the same technology as we had in 1897.

  2. gnp says:

    Back in college I had to do a paper on the history of x-rays in medical radiology, and something interesting I found out – Over the course of the early 20th century, the ability to take better x-ray photographs gradually improved, as did the doctors’ ability to interpret what they were seeing.  But the majority of x-ray photos weren’t for diagnosis, they were taken to protect the doctor from liability. (“You did something to the inside of my foot!”  “No we didn’t.”)  For legal purposes, the photos had to be stored for years until the liability period had lapsed, so you ended up with storage rooms full of… nitrate photo stock.  Which led to some really terrible fires, and was a huge reason to invent a safer alternative… which was acetate stock, appropriately called “safety film” at the time. That was in the 1930s, but the motion picture industry didn’t really switch over until the 1950s.

    • gnp says:

      Come to think of it, CBC radio had an interesting interview years ago that talked about what Edison eventually did with x-rays – he found a cheap way to manufacure a fluoroscope, a device used to see a real-time, moving projection of your bones.  He marketed it to shoe stores.  An old shoe salesman confirmed that it was entirely a gimmick, it didn’t actually help them find a good fit when it came to trying on different shoes. Part of the radio show had a group of medical historians trying to find an old shoe-store fluoroscope – they eventually managed to track one down in a small town in Ontario.  It hadn’t been used for years, but people still remembered one time when the local kids were playing hockey and someone injured their foot, they rushed to the shoe store to see if they could tell if it was broken or not.  And another time they’d tried putting a cat in it.

      • noah django says:

        Cecil Adams covered a question about fluoroscopes back in ’87:
        “The nation’s 10,000 shoe store fluoroscopes were notoriously poorly regulated during their heyday in the 40s and 50s. The U.S. Public Health Service said the average device emitted between 7 and 14 roentgens per dose, but one study found that some machines emitted as much as 116 roentgens. (For comparison, a person standing within 1500 meters of ground zero at Hiroshima got hit with more than 300 roentgens–admittedly throughout their entire bodies, not just their feet.) There is a predictable relationship between X ray exposure and excess cancer deaths. So we can safely say that some people died ahead of their time due to what was basically a sales gimmick.”

      • I remember when I was 8 years old,(1956) my mother took my four year old brother and me to a shoe store in Granby, Québec. While she was selecting shoes for him, I would sneak off and watch my toes wriggling under the fluoroscope. Must have spent 10 minutes watching my feet… it was just so cool to see the bones.

        Been waiting for my feet to fall off for the past half century.

  3. Alastair Wright says:

    You say “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.”

    That’s a startling revelation, can you back it up? He was awarded the first Nobel prize for physics, for discovering X-rays. There’s no doubt that X-rays were produced before Roentgen’s discovery, but no one had discovered or described them until Roentgen.

    • Alastair, this is based on the fact that Rontgen wasn’t the first person to notice the weird thing that would later be called x-rays. He named it. He was the first person to describe it and really do solid research on it. Which is why he deserves the Nobel. But there were other people who wrote about the same phenomenon before him, and I wanted to acknowledge that. I think we do a disservice to public understanding of how science works by making things like x-rays appear to have sprung fully formed from the brain of one single person.

      • Alastair Wright says:

         Who were these other people who wrote about X-ray phenomena before Roentgen? I know of William Crookes writing a letter of complaint to his photographic supplier that he had received fogged photographic plates from them when he had in fact fogged them himself with his Crookes tubes, but that’s hardly describing X-rays.

        The remarkable thing about Roentgen was that he did such complete research for his first scientific paper that  X-rays did really spring fully formed from the brain of a single person.

      • Bill Beaty says:

        Shortly after his announcement, Roentgen received a radiograph of a human foot in a high-laced shoe, sent by Nikola Tesla.  Tesla didn’t explain further, but one of his biographers says that this radiograph was one of the few objects recovered from Tesla’s catastrophic NYC laboratory fire of Mar 13 1895.   Roentgen first noticed x-rays 8mos after this date, and announced his discovery 2mos after that.

        In his 1892 Royal Society lecture, Tesla mentioned a “special radiation” he’d been working with, and the sensitive-brush tube described in the same lecture very probably was a prodigious source of x-radiation (a dark discharge with brightly fluorescing glass envelope.)  Earlier researchers were unable to reach the high vacuum needed for Geissler tubes to produce x-rays, but Tesla had been accidentally producing an ion-pumping effect later widely used to create high vacuum in Crookes-style x-ray tubes.

        Tesla never claimed priority though.   I suspect it was embarrassing to reveal that he’d been working secretly for years, and so keeping the discovery out of the hands of the physics community (and physicians!)

        • Alastair Wright says:


          I was interested in looking up Tesla’s X-ray work and found this page. All the references and the shoe photograph you mentioned are dated 1896 of later, in other words after Roentgen’s work.

          Crookes tubes were evacuated by Sprengel pumps, invented in the 1860s and used by Crookes to develop his eponymous tubes in the 1870s. No further special pump was needed to produce early X-ray tubes, in fact most Crookes tubes produce X-rays.

          • Bill Beaty says:

            Does the following answer your original question about earlier researchers ?

            From your quoted article above:

            “Tesla reported that, driven by his observation of mysterious damage to photographic plates in his laboratory, he began his investigation of x-rays (at that time still unknown and unnamed) in 1894 (2)”

            “AN UNFORTUNATE TURN: The main reason why Tesla’s contribution to the discovery of x-rays hasn’t become better known is that much of his work was lost when his laboratory in New York burnt down on March 13, 1895″

            “He (Tesla) confirmed publicly that he had been conducting independent research on this topic since 1894, which had unfortunately been interrupted by the fire in his laboratory.”

            Tesla wasn’t WRITING about his discovery; he hadn’t announced, nor had patented anything, but only dropped hints during lectures.

  4. X-rays became all the rage during the 20th century.   Which is probably why Superman was given x-ray vision by his creators to go with all his other powers.

  5. dragonet2 says:

    I remember the ‘measure your foot more accurately” thingies in stores.  I had to have a lot of surgery as a small child, which almost always required at least a chest x-ray on admission to hospital to check for TB.  My parents asked how the thing worked when the salesman suggested it, and went, uh. no, you need to measure her feet the usual way.  

  6. Roger Braun says:

    It’s Wilhelm Röntgen, not William Rontgen.

  7. Woody Smith says:

    I once had a dentist who used to hold the X-ray plates in your mouth with his hands. By the time I met him he had three fingers left, two on one hand and one on the other, and he always LEFT THE BUILDING for five minutes while X-rays were taken. I also X-rayed my own feet several times in a a NYC shoe store in the early 50s.

    According to the TV show BURN NOTICE, you can make an X-ray machine by wiring a taser into the power supply of any cathode-ray-type television set. It only works once, but it works.

    • Bill Beaty says:

      That x-ray source is the small HV vacuum-tube rectifier inside the HV DC supply from a very old CRT television.  Modern CRTs use silicon diodes instead.  Slightly older TVs used HV rectifier tubes with lead-glass to block x-rays. Also certain common light bulbs can produce x-rays using 30KV power supply, search Youtube.

      Supposedly the best for sharp images is a 6VS-1 or 6BC-1 high-volt regulator tube off eBay.  Far less hazard than buying an actual x-ray machine.

  8. IndexMe says:

    My grandfather was a dentist in Brooklyn. He too held film in patients’ mouths apparently while xraying them. As a result he forever had bandaids wrapped around his fingertips, and the fingernails were in horrible condition. My memories of him always included those bandaged sorry fingers but this is the first time I have heard that he was lucky in not having any amputations.

  9. calum ryan says:

    I think The Onion and A.V. Club are kind of different entities now. They’re still like sister sites, but telling someone to read something at ‘The Onion’ is going to create some inaccurate expectations.

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