X Rays From 1897

Today, I’m really going to push the boat out, so to speak, and bring you an x-rayted film from 1897 – sorry, couldn’t resist that one!

But, before I get to the film, here is a little background on the inspiration behind the film.


“Don’t talk to me about X-rays,” [Thomas]Edison said after an assistant on one of his X-ray projects started showing signs of illness. “I am afraid of them.”

On November 8, 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen (1845 – 1923), made a discovery that would revolutionise medicine.

An image of Wilhelm Rontgen
Wilhelm Rontgen

His discovery was a miracle ray that would make it possible for doctors to actually see inside the human body. He gave details of this new discovery in a paper entitled “On a new kind of ray: A preliminary communication,” which was published in December 1895.

Although  many of his colleagues were insistent that he should take full credit for the discovery and name the new kind of rays “Röntgen rays” after himself, Röntgen actually referred to the radiation that made the miracle possible as “X”, to indicate that it was an unknown type of radiation.

Röntgen realised the medicinal potential of his new discovery in medicine when he made a picture of his wife’s hand on a photographic plate that had been formed due to his new ray and, in consequence, Frau Röntgen, has the distinction of being the first human being to have a body part photographed by X-ray. Her reaction on seeing the image was to exclaim, “I have seen my death.”


It wasn’t long before these new X-rays –  or “Röntgen rays”, as some people chose, and still do choose, to term them –  had captured the imagination of the public at large and, by 1896, the newspapers were reporting extensively on miracles that had come about as a result of this breakthrough.


On June 6th 1896, for example, The Hampshire Telegraph, carried the following report:-

“The Röntgen  ray is coming to the aid even of lunatics. It has been exploited for the help of a Miss Miller, the daughter of well-to-do parents whose beauty and intelligence are clouded at times by hallucinations.

She fancies she is engaged to this, that and the other man.

The doctor. applied the Röntgen  rays to her head.

The photograph of the skull told the tale.

Inside appeared a row of bony growths, like buttons, which pressed down upon the brain and caused the trouble.

The growths arc is to be removed; then all will be well.”


Even The Illustrated Police News felt compelled to bring its readers news of this marvellous new discovery; albeit their artists, as far as I can tell, refrained from trying to illustrate the wonders of X-rays, possibly because they might be perceived as indecent.

In the edition of the 19th December 1896, the following report appeared:-

The article from the Illustrated Police News on X - Rays.
From The Illustrated Police News, 19th December 1896. Copyright, The British Library Board.


With the public evidently fascinated by this new ability to look inside the human body whilst the person was still alive, Victorian showmen quickly saw the potential, and throughout 1896 there are records of  X-rays becoming a popular attraction at fairs and other public shows in Britain, America, across Europe – and even as far afield as Australia and Japan.

Some of them simply exhibited lantern slides that showed X-ray images, but others went the whole hog and gave live demonstrations, to the utter amazement of their audiences and, as it would transpire in many cases, to the detriment of their health.


Because, as scientists were beginning to discover, this new wonder ray, was not without its side effects, and technical journals were, by 1896, carrying reports of patients and experimenters alike suffering burns, hair loss, and worse as a direct result of  X- rays. In the years ahead, several deaths – such as that of female pioneer Elizabeth Fleischman (1859 – 1905) and Clarence Madison Dally (1865 – 1904), assistant to Thomas Edison – would be attributed to complications directly linked to injuries sustained in their work with X-rays.


But, where the scientists and the showmen led, the early cinematographers were not far behind and, in 1897, film pioneer George Albert Smith (1865–1904), gave the public a cinematic classic that used an early British example of special effect trick photography, to create an on-screen X-ray of two lovers.

The film made use of an effect that had been discovered, quite by accident, by Georges Méliès (1861- 1938), a French magician turn filmmaker.

A photograph of film maker Georges Melies
Georges Méliès

Although his name might not be instantly recognisable, there is a good chance that you are familiar with one of his most famous images that appeared in his 1902 film A Trip To The Moon

The image of the moon with a space craft embedded in its eye.
The Famous Scene From A Trip To The Moon


In 1896, Méliès had been filming a street-scene when his camera had suddenly jammed. He was able to sort the problem out and continue filming; but, on reviewing the film, he discovered that the film jam had caused a carriage to mysteriously change into a hearse.

He had, inadvertently, stumbled upon a basic building block of cinema illusion, the jump cut – a process by which two sequential shots of the same subject are taken from camera positions that vary only slightly, leading to the illusion of having jumped forward in time.

The early film pioneers were quick to spot the potential of Méliès discovery and were soon making use of it.

THE X- RAYS 1897

In October 1897 George Albert Smith used the effect in The X-Rays (also known as The X-Ray Fiend).

A Photograph of George Albert Smith.
Film Pioneer George Albert Smith

Admittedly, by today’s standards the film is, to say the least, somewhat primitive, but just imagine the effect it must have had on the imagination of those Victorians who saw it, with all the newspaper coverage there had been about X-Rays over the course of the previous two year.


The film stars the Victorian comedian Tom Green and Smith’s wife Laura Bayley (1863 – 1938), who play a courting couple who are enjoying an amorous interlude on a bench when they are broached by a man carrying a somewhat cumbersome X-ray Camera.

He proceeds to to aim it at the couple, whereupon – by use of the first jump cut and the actors donning black body suits with skeletons painted on them – they are transformed into skeletons. There is a particularly nice touch in the transformation scene in that Laura Bayley’s parasol is reduced to the bare spokes.

After a few moments of viewing them pared to the bone, so to speak, a second jump cut transforms them back, whereupon, the awkward-looking X-rayer, shuffles off and, for reasons that are not readily apparent, the lady administers an admonishing slap across the face to her kneeling paramour. And, with that, the film ends.


It is easy to dismiss this gem as primitive and unremarkable. But, try and put yourself into the mindset of a member of a Victorian audience viewing the film against the back cloth of the scientific discoveries that had been made over the previous two years.

To them it must have seemed like pure magic and, no doubt, the screenings were punctuated with sharp intakes of breath, not to say gasps of amazement – perhaps even disgust at the look beneath the clothing(?) – at what, at the time, was nothing short of a major special effects breakthrough.

So, sit back, get out the popcorn, switch you mobile phones to silent and, ladies and gentlemen, please enjoy the film!