X-Rays: Earlier than I Realized

A machine gun bullet embedded in a foot bone: x-ray. Photograph, 1914/1918. Wellcome Collection. In copyright

Every book I write leads me down unexpected byways that inform what I write, and even what I think,  but don’t actually appear on the page. In the case of Sigrid Schultz, I regularly found myself up against questions of technology. Often I pursued a technical question because I wanted to understand how Schultz and her colleagues transmitted their stories overseas.* (I will admit, I still do not entirely understand how reporters were able to send photographs, maps and other illustrations by radio.) Other times, I was presented with the technical aspects of a story Schultz was covering—these were the days when innovation in general and aviation in particular were hot stuff.

And occasionally I wanted to understand when a particular technology came into existence and how prevalent it was in the period I am working on. In some cases—the microphone for instance—putting a technology into the timeline actually made the story clearer in my head.  In other cases, though, I just hit something that spurred my curiosity and sent me down a happy rabbit hole.

For example, Sigrid Schultz casually mentioned having her knee x-rayed after an accident in 1941. I was surprised. Somehow I had assumed, based on no information whatsoever, that x-rays were a later technology. Wrong.

German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen accidentally discovered x-rays in 1895 while testing whether cathode rays could pass through glass.** Roentgen must have also been inclined to travel unexpected byways: after some experimentation he learned that when he projected what he called X (as in unknown) rays toward a chemically coated screen, they could pass through most substances, including human tissue, but would leave shadows of higher density objects, like bones, on the screen. Moreover, the resulting images could be photographed.

News of his discovery, and its potential medical uses, spread quickly. Within a year, doctors through Europe and the United States were using the new technology to view broken bones, kidney stones, bullets, and even swallowed objects without having to cut the patient open. A few researchers, including Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, warned of possible dangers from radiation exposure, but they were largely ignored. By the 1930s and 1940s, x-ray technology was so common that some shoe stores offered customers free e-rays of their feet.***

Roentgen won the first Nobel prize in physics for his discovery in 1901.

* They had choices: the mail, telephone, wireless, and cable—and combinations thereof. Which one they chose depended on a complicated trade-off between time and money that varied from story to story. None of the methods were entirely reliable and bureau chiefs like Schultz spent a great deal of time trying to organize ways for correspondents and “stringers” located outside London, Paris and Berlin to get their stories to the home office.

**This is the point at which I realized I didn’t know what cathode rays were and wandered down an adjacent rabbit hole. For those of you who are similarly inclined, this is the most understandable of the sources I found: https://www.thoughtco.com/cathode-ray-2698965

***Why customers would want to see the bones in their feet is not clear to me.

Operation Cornflakes

On February 5, 1945, near the end of WWII, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) began a widespread propaganda campaign in Germany with the unwitting help of the German postal service.

As a first step, Allied bombers derailed a German mail train, scattering its cargo in the process. A second wave of bombers followed and dropped eight mail bags, each filled with 800 properly stamped propaganda letters addressed to homes and businesses in the northern Austrian towns to which the train made deliveries. The idea was that when the postal service realized the train had been derailed, the Germans would collect whatever mail had survived the bombing, including the faked letters containing propaganda, and deliver it to German homes as regularly scheduled. In most cases, the delivery occurred at breakfast time, resulting in the code name Operation Cornflakes.

In preparation for the operation, OSS operatives collected samples of German mail, including stamps, cancellations, and envelopes, and compiled lists of German names and addresses from telephone directories. Propaganda that traveled through the German mail system included an OSS-produced newspaper that claimed to be the work of a growing German opposition party,* letters supposedly written by Nazi party leaders about Hitler’s ill health, and by generals who wanted to surrender. Together, the pieces were designed to create doubt in the minds of the civilian population and to weaken German morale.

Over the course of the operation, the allies dropped 20 loads of fake mail, with a total of 96,000 pieces of mail. A unit in Rome addressed 15,000 envelopes a week. Groups in Switzerland and England created the newspapers and letters and forged stamps.**

The operation eventually failed because of a typo. The return addresses on the envelopes were all those of legitimate German businesses. An OSS operative, perhaps with a cramping hand or aching eyes after hours of addressing envelopes, misspelled Kassenverein as Cassenverien on several envelopes. An alert postal clerk caught the error and brought it to the attention of his superiors. The envelopes were opened, and the propaganda discovered.

Did the operation have an effect on German morale? No one knows. But from a strategic perspective, Operation Cornflakes played a valuable role by putting additional strain on Germany's communication and transport system.

*It is unlikely that any Germans would have believed this, given that the Nazi party had gained control of the German press at all levels within a year of taking power.

**Including stamps that weren’t standard. If you look closely, you’ll notice some creative changes that wouldn’t have passed by an alert censor.



Before the Rockettes

The Tiller Girls in an impromptu dance line, 1900

Thirty-six years before the original Rockettes appeared on a St. Louis stage in 1925,* a failed cotton magnate named John Tiller formed a dance troupe that featured quick, perfectly synchronized dance steps. By the 1920s, several dozen troupes of Tiller Girls, selected for uniform height and weight, performed in major cities across Europe. They were so popular that European revue directors formed similar troupes.

Lines of pretty women dancing, or at least posing, had been a staple of variety revues for years. The thing that made the Tiller Girls different from earlier chorus lines was their speed and precision, which many theater reviewers compared to the dynamism of the modern era. Tiller had created a human equivalent of the factory machine, with dancers as interchangeable parts in coordinated kick-lines.


*Yes. St. Louis. The Rockettes first hit Radio City Music Hall in 1932. I was surprised, too.