9 Transparently Amazing Facts About X-Rays

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen, a professor of Physics in Worzburg, Bavaria, was the first to find a way to peer inside the body without surgery. On the evening of November 8, he was experimenting with the conduction of electricity through low-pressure gases using an induction coil and a partially-evacuated glass tube when he accidentally discovered a mysterious ray capable of lighting up a fluorescent screen a few meters away. When he passed his hand between the ray and the screen, he glimpsed a shadow of his own bones. Further experimentation showed that the screen could be replaced by a photographic plate—and the x-ray was born. Roentgen would later earn the first Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery.

Since then, x-rays have revolutionized medical diagnosis and made a huge impact on astronomy, chemistry, and other branches of science. They’ve allowed us to peer inside our own DNA, as well as into distant galaxies. In 2009, the x-ray was named the most important modern scientific discovery by nearly 50,000 people in a Science Museum of London poll; even penicillin came in second.

1. THE X MEANS UNKNOWN.

Roentgen named his discovery X-strahlenstrahlen being German for “beam” or “ray,” and “x” being used in mathematics to indicate an unknown quantity.  Even though we now know much more about how x-rays work, their name has retained a sense of their original mystery. The rays have also been called “Roentgen's rays,” and the images they produce are sometimes known as “roentgenograms.”

2. ONE OF THE EARLIEST X-RAYS WAS OF THE DISCOVERER’S WIFE’S HAND.

Like many scientists, Roentgen started out by experimenting on his wife. One of his first x-rays—if not the first—was of his wife Anna Bertha's hand with her wedding ring on her finger (above). She was reportedly unimpressed by the image; by some accounts, she exclaimed “I have seen my death!” after looking at it for the first time. (You can see other very early x-rays courtesy of the British Library here.)

3. THEY WERE ALMOST IMMEDIATELY PUT TO USE.

Within weeks of Roentgen’s announcement, European surgeons were using x-rays to find bullets and other foreign substances in human bodies. One of the earliest diagnoses was by a British doctor who found a needle embedded in a woman's hand. By the following year, an x-ray department had been set up at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, and x-rays were being used clinically in the US to diagnose bone fractures and gunshot wounds.

Not all uses were medically necessary, however—the daughter of one early adopter later reported that “at one of my birthday parties we had fancy rings for the children to wear and showed them their skeletal hands to loud shrieks of excitement: knowing what we do today, of course, he wouldn’t have done it.” 

4. PEOPLE USED TO THINK THEY WERE HARMLESS.

In the early days, people thought x-rays passed through the body as harmlessly as normal light. It wasn’t until Thomas Edison’s assistant Clarence Dally, who had worked extensively with X-rays, died of skin cancer in 1904 that people started taking the health concerns about the new technology seriously. 

Partly as a result of the perceived harmlessness—but mostly because of the novelty factor—there was a late-19th-century and early 20th-century vogue for x-ray machines, which started to appear at carnivals and as a curiosity in theatrical shows. The word “x-ray” was even added as a promotional gimmick to products like headache tablets and stove polish—part of a brief “x-ray mania” that saw the rays frequently mentioned in advertising, songs, and cartoons. 

During the 1930s, '40s, and early '50s, x-ray machines were also a not-infrequent feature of American shoe stores, which used them to ensure a better fit. You can see a demonstration of the concept in this clip from the 1920s silent film, General Personal Hygiene:

5. THEY REVOLUTIONIZED THE TREATMENT OF TUBERCULOSIS.

Until the advent of antibiotics for tuberculosis in the mid-20th century, rest in a sanatorium was generally considered the only cure for TB. Early detection was thought to be key for the cure to work, but the traditional method of diagnosing was to listen to chest sounds, which could sometimes be difficult to diagnose accurately. X-rays finally allowed doctors to see the characteristic shadows and spots on the lungs caused by masses of the M. tuberculosis bacteria, and mass radiography began to be used in armies, factories, and mines, with many lives saved as a result.

6. THEY CAN KILL CANCER.

Early experimenters with x-rays noticed that the rays had a tendency to burn skin, a tendency made worse by the fact that older machines exposed people to much higher doses of radiation than today. But while overexposure to the rays can cause cancer, they can also cure it. Even back in Roentgen's day, doctors were using x-rays to burn off moles. Besides being used for diagnosis, today narrowly focused beams of x-rays are used in some forms of cancer radiotherapy to destroy tumor tissues.

7. THEY ALLOWED US TO FIND THE STRUCTURE OF DNA.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Our understanding of the double-helix shape of DNA was provided in part by x-ray crystallography—a technique in which x-rays bounce off the three-dimensional pattern of atoms within a crystal lattice to form a shadow image of its structure. In the early 1950s, a British researcher name Rosalind Franklin took the x-ray photos that first showed DNA’s structure, but died before she could share the Nobel Prize with the men more generally given credit for discovering the shape of the “secret of life”—James Watson and Francis Crick.

8. THEY’VE HELPED US SEE INTO SPACE

More than a dozen telescopes that detect x-rays have been launched into space, which have allowed us to make discoveries far beyond our own solar system. In 1999, NASA deployed their Chandra X-ray Observatory aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, which has since discovered black holes, advanced our understanding of dark matter, and looked at the huge black hole at the center of the Milky Way, among other achievements.

9. THEY’VE CHANGED OUR UNDERSTANDING OF ART AND ARTIFACTS.

X-rays have allowed scientists and art historians to see “underpaintings”—the rough sketches painters once used to guide their work—among other secrets. Seeing these underpaintings can help art historians gain a better understanding of the way artists once worked. X-rays can also show how paintings have been changed and restored over time, sometimes allowing for more authentic restorations.

X-rays have also been to study priceless artifacts—like Egyptian mummies—without damaging them. And they’ve revealed surprises, like the human corpse inside one Chinese statue. They’ve even been used to peer inside opaque amber to view otherwise invisible fossils of ancient animals, insects, and plants.

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

Electronics

Dash/Amazon

- BISSELL Lightweight Upright Vacuum Cleaner $170 (save $60)

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- COMFEE Toaster Oven $29 (save $9)

- AmazonBasics 1500W Oscillating Ceramic Heater $31 (save $4)

Home office Essentials

HP/Amazon

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- HP Printer Paper (500 Sheets) $5 (save $2)

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Selieve/Amazon

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Home Improvement

DEWALT/Amazon

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NECA/Amazon

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12 Surprising Facts About T.S. Eliot

Getty
Getty

Born September 26, 1888, modernist poet and playwright Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is best known for writing "The Waste Land." But the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was also a prankster who coined a perennially popular curse word, and created the characters brought to life in the Broadway musical "Cats." In honor of Eliot’s birthday, here are a few things you might not know about the writer.

1. T.S. Eliot enjoyed holding down "real" jobs.

Throughout his life, Eliot supported himself by working as a teacher, banker, and editor. He could only write poetry in his spare time, but he preferred it that way. In a 1959 interview with The Paris Review, Eliot remarked that his banking and publishing jobs actually helped him be a better poet. “I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me,” Eliot said. “The danger, as a rule, of having nothing else to do is that one might write too much rather than concentrating and perfecting smaller amounts.”

2. One of the longest-running Broadway shows ever exists thanks to T.S. Eliot.

Getty Images

In 1939, Eliot published a book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which included feline-focused verses he likely wrote for his godson. In stark contrast to most of Eliot's other works—which are complex and frequently nihilistic—the poems here were decidedly playful. For Eliot, there was never any tension between those two modes: “One wants to keep one’s hand in, you know, in every type of poem, serious and frivolous and proper and improper. One doesn’t want to lose one’s skill,” he explained in his Paris Review interview. A fan of Eliot's Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats since childhood, in the late '70s, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to set many of Eliot's poems to music. The result: the massively successful stage production "Cats," which opened in London in 1981 and, after its 1982 NYC debut, became one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time.

3. Three hours per day was his T.S. Eliot’s writing limit.

Eliot wrote poems and plays partly on a typewriter and partly with pencil and paper. But no matter what method he used, he tried to always keep a three hour writing limit. “I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory," he explained. "It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.”

4. T.S. Eliot considered "Four Quartets" to be his best work.

In 1927, Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British citizen. His poems and plays in the 1930s and 1940s—including "Ash Wednesday," "Murder in the Cathedral," and "Four Quartets"—reveal themes of religion, faith, and divinity. He considered "Four Quartets,” a set of four poems that explored philosophy and spirituality, to be his best writing. Out of the four, the last is his favorite.

5. T.S. Eliot had an epistolary friendship with Groucho Marx.

Eliot wrote comedian Groucho Marx a fan letter in 1961. Marx replied, gave Eliot a photo of himself, and started a correspondence with the poet. After writing back and forth for a few years, they met in real life in 1964, when Eliot hosted Marx and his wife for dinner at his London home. The two men, unfortunately, didn’t hit it off. The main issue, according to a letter Marx wrote his brother: the comedian had hoped he was in for a "Literary Evening," and tried to discuss King Lear. All Eliot wanted to talk about was Marx's 1933 comedy Duck Soup. (In a 2014 piece for The New Yorker, Lee Siegel suggests there had been "simmering tension" all along, even in their early correspondence.)

6. Ezra Pound tried to crowdfund T.S. Eliot’s writing.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1921, Eliot took a few months off from his banking job after a nervous breakdown. During this time, he finished writing "The Waste Land," which his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound edited. Pound, with the help of other Bohemian writers, set up Bel Esprit, a fund to raise money for Eliot so he could quit his bank job to focus on writing full-time. Pound managed to get several subscribers to pledge money to Eliot, but Eliot didn’t want to give up his career, which he genuinely liked. The Liverpool Post, Chicago Daily Tribune, and the New York Tribune reported on Pound’s crowdfunding campaign, incorrectly stating that Eliot had taken the money, but continued working at the bank. After Eliot protested, the newspapers printed a retraction.

7. Writing in French helped T.S. Eliot overcome writer’s block.

After studying at Harvard, Eliot spent a year in Paris and fantasized about writing in French rather than English. Although little ever came of that fantasy, during a period of writer’s block, Eliot did manage to write a few poems in French. “That was a very curious thing which I can’t altogether explain. At that period I thought I’d dried up completely. I hadn’t written anything for some time and was rather desperate,” he told The Paris Review. “I started writing a few things in French and found I could, at that period ...Then I suddenly began writing in English again and lost all desire to go on with French. I think it was just something that helped me get started again."

8. T.S. Eliot set off stink bombs in London with his nephew.

Eliot, whose friends and family called him Tom, was supposedly a big prankster. When his nephew was young, Eliot took him to a joke shop in London to purchase stink bombs, which they promptly set off in the lobby of a nearby hotel. Eliot was also known to hand out exploding cigars, and put whoopee cushions on the chairs of his guests.

9. T.S. Eliot may have been the first person to write the word "bulls**t."

In the early 1910s, Eliot wrote a poem called "The Triumph of Bulls**t." Like an early 20th-century Taylor Swift tune, the poem was Eliot’s way of dissing his haters. In 1915, he submitted the poem to a London magazine … which rejected it for publication. The word bulls**t isn’t in the poem itself, only the poem’s title, but The Oxford English Dictionary credits the poem with being the first time the curse word ever appeared in print.

10. T.S. Eliot coined the expression “April is the cruelest month.”

Thanks to Eliot, the phrase “April is the cruelest month” has become an oft-quoted, well-known expression. It comes from the opening lines of "The Waste Land”: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

11. T.S. Eliot held some troubling beliefs about religion.

Over the years, Eliot made some incredibly problematic remarks about Jewish people, including arguing that members of a society should have a shared religious background, and that a large number of Jews creates an undesirably heterogeneous culture. Many of his early writing also featured offensive portrayals of Jewish characters. (As one critic, Joseph Black, pointed out in a 2010 edition of "The Waste Land" and Other Poems, "Few published works displayed the consistency of association that one finds in Eliot's early poetry between what is Jewish and what is squalid and distasteful.") Eliot's defenders argue that the poet's relationship with Jewish people was much more nuanced that his early poems suggest, and point to his close relationships with a number of Jewish writers and artists.

12. You can watch a movie based on T.S. Eliot’s (really bad) marriage.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tom & Viv, a 1994 film starring Willem Dafoe, explores Eliot’s tumultuous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a dancer and socialite. The couple married in 1915, a few months after they met, but the relationship quickly soured. Haigh-Wood had constant physical ailments, mental health problems, and was addicted to ether. The couple spent a lot of time apart and separated in the 1930s; she died in a mental hospital in 1947. Eliot would go on to remarry at the age of 68—his 30-year-old secretary, Esmé Valerie Fletcher—and would later reveal that his state of despair during his first marriage was the catalyst and inspiration for "The Waste Land."

This story has been updated for 2020.