X-ray fiends


The latest film to go up on the BFI’s YouTube site is G.A. Smith’s The X-rays (UK 1897). I’ve a modest personal interest in this one, because I identified it and catalogued it when I was working at the BFI’s archive, a dozen or so years ago. It came to us as part of a collection of unidentified 1890s/1900s films which arrived the wake of the celebrated Henville collection of 1890s film which caused quite a stir at the time of the centenary of cinema in 1995/96. Amazingly there were a further three or four small collections of unidentified films of a similar vintage which came our way following all the Henville fuss, and The X-rays was among them.

In truth it was one of the easier early films to identify. Having a man carrying a large camera with the word ‘X-rays’ written on the side was a handy clue, and then the two lovers in the film were readily identifiable from other British films of the period – they were Tom Green and Laura Bayley, the latter the actress wife of the Hove filmmaker, George Albert Smith. A quick check in John Barnes’ The Beginnings of Cinema in England (a multi-volume history of 1890s film in Britain) and hey presto – The X-rays, aka The X-ray Fiend, directed by G.A. Smith for GAS Films and marketed by the Warwick Trading Company in 1898. Easy.

The film was one of those you really hoped would turn up eventually, because it would fit so neatly with the interests of early film scholars. It was one of those films you could practically imagine the filmmaker obligingly producing because he somehow knew it would excite the interests for academics 100 years hence. There is the early special effect caused by the cut from the lovers to their appearance as skeletons, the self-referential use of a camera operator, the narrative generated by visual invention, the intimation of the camera (and viewer) as voyeur, and the important alliance between the cinematograph and Röntgen rays.

Röntgen rays? Well, that’s what they were called for a while, because it was German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen (or Roentgen) who discovered them. He won the first Nobel Prize for Physics (in 1901) for his discovery of the electromagnetic rays which could penetrate solid objects. The discovery naturally had a huge effect on medical practice, and created great popular interest. The rays were quite quickly dubbed X-rays rather than Röntgen rays, and that popular interest was taken up by showmen. X-rays became an attraction at fairs and other public shows, and there were a number of showmen who exhibited motion pictures and X-rays as complementary entertainments. There are records of such showmen in America, Britain, across mainland Europe, in Australia, and in Japan, all operating in the mid-to-late 1890s.

Some of them suffered grievously because of it. British showman William Paley emigrated to the USA and exhibited X-rays 1896-97 until he had to give up because of the adverse affect on his health and turned to film shows instead. Another British showman Jasper Redfern combined the cinematograph with X-rays and was eventually to die of radiation-induced cancer (though this was more likely because of his later medical work researching into X-rays and cancer treatment). Other showmen played it say but simply exhibiting lantern slides showing X-ray images, which was safer and a lot cheaper. Other people associated with film experimented with X-rays or used them professionally – Thomas Edison (whose chief X-ray exerimenter Clarence Dally died of radiation poisoning), Auguste Lumière (a medical experimenter when not running his film and photography business) and James Williamson (a high street chemist by profession).

Dr John Macintyre’s 1897 X-ray film of a frog’s leg, plus later footage (c.1909) showing X-ray pictures of a human heart beat and the movement of the stomach after a bismuth meal

And then there were X-ray medical experimenters who used film. In April 1897 Dr John Macintyre of Glasgow combined the two invention to create X-ray cinematography. He demonstrated the motion of a frog’s limbs, showing his film first to an audience of fellow scientists to the Glasgow Philosophical Society and then again on the Society’s Ladies’ Night, thus interestingly crossing the line between science and entertainment. Macintyre’s film survives, as is available to view at the Scottish Screen Archive’s site and on the National Library of Scotland’s YouTube site.

Other scientists of the period experimented with X-ray cinematography as well, among them the Frenchmen Jean-Charles Roux and Victor Balthazard, who filmed the stomachs of animals, also in 1897. Between 1903-06 another French medical research Joachim Carvallo improved on these processes with a specially adapted camera using 60mm (supplied by Lumière) electrically automated to shoot at different speeds, and later experimenters in the 1900s/10s worked on increasing the size of the object that could be investigated by the rays, among them P.H. Eijkman, F.M. Groedel and the great Jean Comandon, who introduced the indirect filming of X-rays, by filming a screen onto which the rays had been projected. X-rays as a screen entertainment quickly died away, but in the field of science they became the subject of the first medical films and an important milestone in the history of medical imaging.

There’s an interesting literature on X-rays and early film. See in particular Richard Crangle’s ‘Saturday Night at the X-rays – The Moving Picture and the “New Photography” in Britain, 1896’ in John Fullerton (ed.), Celebrating 1895: The Centenary of Cinema, and Lisa Cartwright’s thought-provoking study of the relationship between the moving image (especially early film) and physiology, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture, which discusses Macintyre’s work. On X-ray cinematographers and other scientists working with film in the early cinema period, see Virgilio Tosi, Cinema before Cinema: The Origins of Scientific Cinematography.

All of which is yet another lesson never to see early film as a phenomenon that existed of itself, by itself. Film was always tied up with something else – in this case medical science – as it tried to find its place in the world by reflecting the world. It’s what makes early film so interesting.