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.

5 Facts About Charles Ponzi and the Original Ponzi Scheme

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Some of the most infamous scams in history have been Ponzi schemes, but before Bernie Madoff (or Bitcoin), there was Charles Ponzi himself. The con he built was so successful that his last name became synonymous with fraud. In January 2020, a century after he set up his fraudulent Securities Exchange Company, the phrase Ponzi scheme is still used to describe any scheme in which funds from new investors are used to pay back old investors. Here are some facts about Ponzi and his scheme that you should know.

1. Charles Ponzi arrived in the U.S. with $2.50 in his pocket.

Charles Ponzi was born in Lugo, Italy, in 1882. As a young adult, he worked as a postal worker and studied at the University of Roma La Sapienza. Neither path panned out for him, however. In 1903, when faced with dwindling funds, Ponzi boarded a ship for America in search of a better life. But Ponzi wasn't a master hustler at this point in his life; he arrived in Boston with $2.50 after gambling away the rest of his life savings on the ship.

2. Charles Ponzi spent time in prison before his famous scheme.

Ponzi was no stranger to crime before concocting the scheme that made his surname infamous. Not long after arriving in Boston, he moved to Canada and got in trouble for forging checks. He spent two years in a Canadian prison for his offenses. Back in the U.S., he served a term in federal prison for illegally transporting five Italians immigrants across the Canadian border. It was only after his so-called Ponzi scheme began to crumble that his criminal history was made public by journalists, thus speeding up his downfall.

3. Charles Ponzi got rich off the postal system.

In 1920, Ponzi discovered the key to the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme: an international postal reply coupon worth $.05. It had been included in a parcel he received from Spain as prepayment for his reply postage. Thanks to an international treaty, the voucher could be exchanged for one U.S. postage stamp worth a nickel, which Ponzi could then sell. Ponzi knew that the value of the Spanish peseta had recently fallen in relation to the dollar, which meant that the coupon was actually worth more than the 30 centavos used to purchase it in Spain. He took this concept to the extreme by recruiting people back home in Italy to buy postal reply coupons in bulk from countries with weak economies, so that he could redeem them in the U.S. for a profit.

4. Charles Ponzi swindled $20 million from investors.

Ponzi technically wasn’t breaking any laws with his postal service transactions, and if he had kept his idea to himself he would have gotten away with it. Instead, he turned his small money-making operation into a wide-reaching scam. If people invested money into his “business” of cashing in foreign postal vouchers, which he dubbed the Securities Exchange Company, they would get their money back plus 50 percent interest in 90 days. The deal was too good for many investors to pass up.

It was also too good to be true: The money wasn’t being used to buy coupons overseas. Ponzi kept most of the investments for himself and used the flood of money coming in from new investors to pay off the old ones. Many investors were so thrilled with their returns that they invested whatever money they had made back into the business, which helped Ponzi keep the sham afloat.

Ponzi was finally rich and famous, but soon enough, cracks in the scheme started to form. The Boston Post launched an investigation into Ponzi and revealed that in order for his business to be functional, he would need to be moving 160 million vouchers across world borders. There were only 27,000 postal reply coupons in circulation at the time. The final blow came when the publicist he had hired to represent him came out against him to the public. His system fell apart and it was revealed that he had stolen $20 million from investors.

Because he had lied to his clients about their investments through the mail, Ponzi was ultimately charged by the federal government for mail fraud. He served three-and-a-half years in prison and then served an additional nine years for state charges.

5. Charles Ponzi didn’t invent the Ponzi scheme.

Though Ponzi schemes were eventually named for him, Charles Ponzi didn’t invent this type of scam. There were many crooks before him who used the same method to exploit investors. Charles Dickens even wrote pre-Ponzi Ponzi schemes into his 1857 novel Little Doritt.

It’s possible that Ponzi got the idea for his own fraud from William F. Miller, who pulled a similar stunt working as a bookkeeper in Brooklyn in 1899. But it was the highs of Ponzi’s success—and the lows of his demise—that made his story so memorable.

14 Candid Photos of Martin Luther King Jr.

Getty Images
Getty Images

January 20, 2020 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the federal holiday that celebrates the life of the civil rights activist. The holiday—which was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, and has been observed annually since 1986—is held on the third Monday in January. (King was born on January 15.) Here's a look back at King in action.

Martin Luther King Jr. on the phone
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  • American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sits on a couch and speaks on the telephone after encountering a white mob protesting against the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 26, 1961.


J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images
  • American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King arriving in London on October 1, 1961. He was in England to be the chief speaker at a public meeting about color prejudice and to appear on the BBC television program Face To Face.


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  • American president John F. Kennedy at the White House on August 28, 1963 with leaders of the civil rights March on Washington (left to right): Dr. Martin Luther King, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, A. Philip Randolph, President Kennedy, Walter Reuther, and Roy Wilkins. Behind Reuther is Vice President Lyndon Johnson.


William H. Alden/Evening Standard/Getty Images
  • King raising his hands in a restaurant on September 21, 1963.


Evening Standard/Getty Images
  • Canon John Collins greeting King at London Airport on December 5, 1964.


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  • King receives the Nobel Prize for Peace from Gunnar Jahn, president of the Nobel Prize Committee, in Oslo, on December 10, 1964.


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  • President Lyndon B. Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act with King in January 1965. The act, part of President Johnson's "Great Society" program, trebled the number of black voters in the south, who had previously been hindered by racially inspired laws.


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  • King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, lead a civil rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery in March 1965. On the left (holding bottle) is American diplomat Ralph Bunche.


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  • King addresses a crowd in front of the Capitol Building in Montgomery, Alabama, following a voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, in March 1965.


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  • King listening to a transistor radio in the front line of the third march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to campaign for proper registration of black voters, on March 23, 1965. Among the other marchers are: Ralph Abernathy (1926 - 1990, second from left), Ralph Bunche (1903 - 1971, third from right) and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 - 1972, far right). The first march ended in violence when marchers were attacked by police. The second was aborted after a legal injunction was issued.


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  • King addresses civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, in April 1965.


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  • King speaks to reporters during a march en route to Jackson, Mississippi, on June 11, 1966.


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  • Watched by Dr. Charles Bousenquet, King signs the Degree Roll at Newcastle University after receiving an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree, Newcastle, England, on November 14, 1967.


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  • King speaks at a January 12, 1968 press conference for Clergy & Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, held at the Belmont Plaza Hotel, New York City. He announced the Poor People's March On Washington at this event.

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