Discovery of x-rays

Are there any experts on radiation and x-rays here? According to local legend, a man in my hometown almost discovered x-rays. As the story goes, he was a rope maker, and he would select the best raw materials by magnifying them for inspection. During this process of strong magnification, he found that he could almost see through items. He wrote to an editor of a journal to report his findings. The editor wrote back to him and encouraged him to continue his work. The rope maker, however, went on to other pursuits.

After his death, his daughter found the letter from the editor. About a year later, Wilhelm Rontgen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of x-rays. The rope maker’s family decided that he had been close to discovering x-rays years earlier than Rontgen. Every now and then, this local story pops up about the local man who almost discovered the x-ray.

I think it’s a real stretch to correlate magnifying items to discovering x-rays. So the question – isn’t radiation needed? Am I wrong in thinking it is absurd to claim someone using only magnification was close to discovering x-rays?

This story (about the rope maker being able to “see through” materials allowing him to discover X-rays) makes no sense.

X-rays are just very high energy photons (124 ev to 124 keV, corresponding to a range of 30 PHz to 30 EHz). They pass through soft tissue without much absorption or scattering which is why they are useful at looking at skeletal structures especially where there are fractures, and are also used in crystallography because the way that they scatter off of metallic lattices and proteins gives diffraction patterns that are characteristic of the underlying molecular structure too fine to be imaged through light. When the X-rays impinge upon photographic film or an image sensor tuned to those particular frequencies, the silhouette image is formed. Nobody can see X-rays, even if they are being projected directly onto the retina, because they are of too high an energy for the photoreceptors of the eye to absorb and register.

When you look at a loosely woven fine textile very closely it may look as if you can see through the material but in fact what you are seeing is the pseudo-diffraction pattern of light going through the spaces between the fiber. There are a number of optical illusions and effects that can result from this that look like actual diffraction but are really just a result of a combination of binocular vision and the resolution limits of the human eye.


Rope maker? Roentgen? Tesla invented the shadowgraph, because, you know, it’s always Tesla.

It isn’t absurd, it is Not Even Wrong


Aren’t lots of things transparent under magnification (especially when that often includes slicing into a thin layer)? Many opaque things on a macro scale are formed of transparent elements Eg famously polar bears fur.

It’s not only nothing to do with x rays, it’s an observation at least as old as the light microscope.

Do you have any more information? The name especially but even just the name of your hometown would help in a newspaper archive search. Google gives no hits for rope maker and x-rays.

I have a fascinating book titled A Century of X-Rays and Radioactivity in Medicine: With Emphasis on Photographic Records of the Early Years. There is not a hint of anyone preceding Roentgen nor of alternative methods for producing them or recording them. I’m as skeptical as everyone else here, but I’d like to find what’s been written about this.

The rope maker was nowhere near discovering X-rays, but he may have been close to inventing X-ray Specs.

I’ve never seen the story in print. It keeps coming up in ‘cemetery walks’ – where people portray noteworthy people and tell their life stories – and also in Facebook posts made by people who believe it. This is the individual in question – Charles G. Bush - Brewster Kaleidoscope Society

Thanks. As noted in your link, Charles Gustavus Busch was far better known as a manufacturer of kaleidoscopes than from his earlier occupation of rope maker, and used the anglicized Bush only on them. Under either spelling or any combination of key words, though, I only found one my reference to him and x-rays either through Google or

That was in News SCOPE, the newsletter of the Brewster Kaleidoscope Society, Winter 2014. On page 4 is a letter from his great-great-granddaughter that has the line, “In his work with early photography, he had accidentally tripped over what would later be credited as Roentgen’s X-ray discovery.”

That’s better than using a microscope on rope fibers, but provides no evidence of anything other than that the story was part of family lore.

Too bad. That’s a tale that might have some interest, but is just too thin to pursue.

It was probably the polite bush-off nice journal editors try to give to crackpots and nice publishers try to give to hacks. “That’s an interesting idea you have. Unfortunately we can’t use it at the time, but keep working! Have a nice Summer!” (Wait, that last one is for when you sign someone’s yearbook and you don’t know who they are.)

lol, I bought a pair from the back of a magazine when I was a kid, maybe Cracked, Mad or Boys Life, Popular Mechanics or Electronics? I took one look at at the delivered glasses, laughed, wore for 30 seconds and tossed 'em. I was grifted but had to admire the scam, even when I was 13.

The biggest problem with this “He almost discovered X-Rays!” is that humans can’t see X-rays. No matter what optical magnification you might use, you would still only see light within the visible spectrum.

Note that the actual discovery of X-Rays relied on devices which could actually be affected by X-rays, unlike the human eye.

If he worked with early photographic plaques, he could have seen some of them impressed in the absence of light so inferring the presence of an unseen light → X-rays.
And then done some experiments with it to confirm.
But with no physical trace, that’s dubious: many people had been close to discovering something but didn’t pursue as the official discoverer did.

I love on that page where it says :-

Similar useful devices[edit]

  • Thermal imaging goggles are used by various military and police organizations. They are intended for night use, but the longer wavelength of infrared light allows the user to see images through some materials that are impervious to visible light. Some video cameras have a night mode that gives an IR image under the right conditions.[5] Digital cameras can also be used.[6]
  • Devices for airport security are able to see through clothing quite well. Some of these are true X-ray devices, using backscatter X-rays. The devices are not portable and use a typical X-ray display screen, not goggles.
  • Cargo scanning includes the use of X-ray radiography, dual-energy X-ray radiography, backscatter X-ray radiography, muon radiography, muon tomography, neutron activation systems, or gamma-ray radiography.
  • Terahertz imaging uses electromagnetic radiation in the terahertz or far infrared range to see through objects in a similar manner to X-rays. It is currently a very expensive new technology, and is being tested for use in customs inspection, firefighting, search and rescue and medical imaging.[7]

Yeah, similar. Right.