Boston Children’s Hospital Once Relied on the Opera to Power X-Rays

In the 1880’s the Children’s Hospital in Boston didn’t have electricity, so it couldn’t use X-rays. But the nearby Opera House did


In Boston, back in the late 19th century, the Opera House was one of the only institutions to have electric lights. Opera houses, traditionally, had been lit by flame-based lights, but, to cut down on the smoke and heat, they became early adopters of electricity, as The Library of Congress’s blog explains:

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.

This was before power companies really even existed. Even hospitals didn’t have electricity yet. So while the Boston Children’s Hospital wanted to use a new technology—X-rays—it didn’t have the juice to do so. But the nearby Opera House did. Which meant that in order to give X-rays to kids, they had to borrow electricity from the opera.

The catch was that the current was only flowing when the opera was on. So if there was no music, there was no power, and there were no X-rays. Percy Brown, the 11th President of the American Roentgen Ray Society put it this way: “No opera, no X-rays!”

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