Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Exposed: The History Behind X-ray Specs, Gogs, Tubes, Pens, and Scopes.

Look familiar?  This image, borrowed from a pending eBay ad, shows a 1906 premium/gift offered by the Derby Supply Co. of Chicago:

The "X=ray" card above is nothing less than a much earlier, non-stereo version of the famous "X-ray" specs, spex, and gogs famous from Boomer-era comic book ads: say nothing of a certain see-through-walls "Spy Pen," hawked here in a 1968 ad scanned by me from a Charlton war comic.  Offered to the public by the "man from U.N.C.L.E." (which one?), this device was allegedly developed by the German Secret Service during WWII, and we have no reason to doubt comic-ad copy:

So, how far back in the hole of time must we peer to spot the first instance of this fuzzy, famous scam?  Answer: At least to the (probably late) 1890s.  Squint your eyes on this ad "cut" from a Robt. H. Ingersoll and Bros. mail-order catalog.  (Image borrowed from the fun Voice of the Monkey blog):

Then we have the same thing, only with a "metal base" and called an "X-ray Electroscope."  (Ad found by me in the Feb., 1902 issue of The American Boy magazine.)  "See your fellow, best girl, or any object through wood or stone," it says, but what about curtains and blinds?  Was there another "electroscope" for that?

Could any of these have survived? I ask because, not only were these things from the pre-plastic era, they were likely not constructed to last "a lifetime," unless maybe we're talking, say, the earthly span of a moth.  Somewhere, in some forgotten landfill, one of these is sitting next to a quickly discarded Wonder Tube:

Can we assume that the Rogen X-ray (X-ray Wonder), shown directly below in a 1920 ad, worked just as well as the Wonder Tube and X-ray Electroscope?  I think we can.  I think we can also conclude that, in all probability, "Rogen" was intended to be confused with "Röentgen," as in, X-ray inventor Wilhelm Röentgen.  Easy to see through that ploy.

Then, at least as early as 1922, the famous novelty outfit Johnson Smith & Co. was offering an "X-ray Tube" for 10 cents (3 for 25 cents)  in Popular Mechanics, proving that a gimmick need not work worth a darn to clear the excessively low mail-order customer-satisfaction bar.  Again, we see the bones-in-the-hand motif:

For an explanation of how this highly underwhelming (but quite lucrative!) gimmick worked, so to speak, see Wikipedia's entry on X-Ray Specs: Wikipedia's entry on X-Ray specs. Throughout this piece, I've been using a lower-case r for "Ray," but since we're not talking the genuine phenomenon, I x-spec it doesn't ray-ly matter.

Coming soon: Yet more scopes, including the "Seebackcrascope" "Seebacroscope," which shows up in a 1902 American Boy ad and was still being marketed under that name in the 1950s.  After that, the scope morphed into (you guessed it) glasses.  The device, of course, allowed one to see backra backro.


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