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No Opera, No X-Rays!

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The following is a guest post by Emmy-Award-winning engineer Mark Schubin who is a frequent researcher at the Library of Congress. He has been writing about the intersecting histories of opera and media technology since 1972 and currently serves as engineer-in-charge of the Metropolitan Opera’s Media Department. In October 2011, Mark gave a presentation at the Library on the “Fandom of the Opera: How a 400-year-old Art Form Helped Create Modern Media Technology.” You can view his lecture as a webcast or on our Youtube channel. You also might wish to check out a post he wrote for us last year-  Watching Baseball at the Opera House.  

Radiograph of the hand of von Kolliker made by Roentgen, Sitzungs-berichte Physikalisch-medicinische Gesellschaft zu Wurzburg, no. 1, 1896.

This is about two once-deadly arts. One seems dangerous even today. When a dentist covers you with lead protection before taking an X-ray of your teeth, you know something requiring precautions is being done. Unfortunately, that knowledge was not available to early radiologists.

Wilhelm Roentgen (Röntgen) submitted to the secretary of the Physical-Medical Society at Würzburg (Germany) his preliminary communication (Vorläufige Mittheilung) about X-rays on December 28, 1895*.  Roentgen used the letter X to represent the unknown; others used “Roentgen rays” to honor the discoverer. By the following spring Ernest Amory Codman, who was the first “skiagrapher” (shadow printer) at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, was already qualified as an “Expert in X-ray” in a Boston court.

The title of this post (No opera, no x-rays!) complete with exclamation point, first appeared in Merrill C. Sosman’s “Roentgenology at Harvard” (Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin, v.21, 1947: 65-76). This article was about the history of roentgenology (radiology) according to notable figures in the field, many of whom were graduates of Harvard’s medical school. The phrase “No opera, no x-rays!” was written by Percy Brown. Brown was the 11th president of the American Roentgen Ray Society and was the first head of the Roentgenology Department at Boston Children’s Hospital. He is more famous, however, as the author of the book American Martyrs to Science through the Roentgen Rays (Springfield, Ill., Baltimore, Md., C.C. Thomas [c1936]). Brown himself had to have a number of fingers amputated and eventually died of X-ray induced carcinoma.

The brilliant electrical engineer Nikola Tesla thought nothing of exposing himself to X-rays at the time. He was quoted in the article “X Ray Wonders” published in the St. Paul Daily Globe on March 11, 1896, “There is a general soothing effect, and I have felt a sensation of warmth in the upper part of the head.”

As for opera, it, too, could be deadly. It wasn’t boredom, the deaths of characters in plots, or the occasional accident, act of war, murder, suicide, or end of life by natural causes in an opera house; it was the lighting.

The Opera House, the inauguration of the opera, Paris, France (between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900]). Photochrom print collection.

Today opera houses are lit by electricity, but for most of opera’s history they were lit by some form of flame, whether gas in the 19th century or oil lamps and candles earlier. One danger, of course, was a conflagration. Artist Henri Matisse was at the Opéra-Comique in Paris the night of a deadly 1887 fire. According to Hilary Spurling in The Unknown Matisse (New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.), he “fought his way down to the ground floor, where he found thirty bodies piled up against a glass-paneled door that opened inwards” but was rescued by firefighters who broke in. Given the danger, large opera houses pioneered “fireproof” construction and fire extinguishers and often had their own fire departments. But there were also less-obvious evils.

We think of candlelight today as romantic, but that’s from the sort of candles pioneered in the middle of the 19th century, as described in physicist Michael Faraday’s The chemical history of a candle, a course of lectures delivered before a juvenile audience at the Royal Institution (edited by William Crookes, London, Chatto & Windus, 1874). Those modern candles, by the way, were perfected, in part, thanks to the paraffin-molding work of opera technical director Antonio Meucci. Older candles were smoky, stinky, and prone to bending over. In his book Listening in Paris: a cultural history (Berkeley, University of California Press, c1995), James H. Johnson offers a contemporary 18th-century account of an “intervening haze between the actors and the spectators” and even found a complaint about candle smoke from Marie Antoinette. Early candles could also emit toxins, and their wicks weren’t consumed, forcing singers to trim those on stage with special scissors called snuffers.

Opera houses learned to make do. A 17th-century handbook by Nicola Sabbattini (Pratica di fabricar scene e machine ne’ teatri) has a diagram of a candle-based lighting dimmer. A contemporary account of a candle-lit chandelier rising into the ceiling at the beginning of an opera and thereby darkening a 17th-century auditorium may be found in A. M. Nagler’s A Source Book in Theatrical History (New York : Dover Publications, 1959, c1952.). The darkening was a side benefit; bringing the chandelier up let technicians trim the candle wicks and kept hot-wax drips off patrons.

As late as the end of the 19th century, flame-based lighting was still an opera house problem. Ventilating and Heating by John Billings, published in 1893, includes a study of the Theatre Royal in Manchester, England. At a time when the outdoor temperature was 36 degrees Fahrenheit, it was 121 in the gallery seating. The outside air in the coal-burning industrial city had 530 parts-per-million of carbon dioxide; inside the level was 1,690, enough to affect respiration.

Bacteria, mold, and other organic matter in the air were also many times higher indoors than out. And, while convection was roasting the upper opera-goers, it was freezing those below, sucking in cold air to replace the vented hot.

Showing Harold Wellington Jones with C.B. Wormelle, Percy Brown, Arthur T. Legg, and Nathaniel Allison as interns at The Children’s Hospital, Boston (1901). Image from the National Library of Medicine.

So opera houses were among the first to adopt electric lighting, starting in 1881, before power companies (in 1849, the Paris Opera used an electric arc for a special effect and had to come up with a way to precipitate the toxic fumes from the acid-based batteries used). And the X-rays? Boston had one of the first opera houses with its own electric generators, something the city’s Children’s Hospital lacked. Here’s radiologist Brown’s full quote:

The first X-ray department at the Children’s was limited in its function by reason of the fact that the hospital was not equipped with electric current, and was obliged to obtain its power from the Opera House nearby. A wire was run from the Opera House to the Hospital, but when there was no music there was no current. No opera, no X-rays! 

—Since we are on the topic of opera, the Library of Congress has opened a new exhibit about this art form in the Performing Arts Gallery. My fellow blogger Cait Miller for In the Muse talked to the curators about the exhibit- see  New Exhibit: Night at the Opera.

* According to Harold S. Klickstein’s Wilhem Conrad Röntgen On a New Kind of Rays:  A bibliographical study (1966), Röntgen’s manuscript was submitted to the printer immediately for publication in the society’s final report of 1895 as Ueber eine neue art von strahlen: Sitzungs-berichte der Physikalisch-medicinischen Gesellschaft zu Würzburg, no. 9, 1895: 132-141.  It was also published as an offprint (or reprint) before the society’s publication as Eine Neue Art von Strahlen (Würzubrg, Verlag und Druck der Stahel’schen K. Hof und Universitäts-Buch- Und Kunsthandlung, Ende 1895), which Röntgen sent to well-known scientists.  The first English translation of this work is the following: Röntgen, W.C. On a New Kind of Rays. Nature, v. 53, January 23 1896:  274-276.



Comments (4)

  1. I love the article and found it to be very interesting

  2. well, THAT wasn’t quite what i expected! what an entertaining and interesting post!

  3. Such a fascinating history! Thanks for a great post.

  4. Very interesting all the way through. Kept trying to “predict” how the title would completely tie the two together. Great closer! Surprised me.

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