I first encountered the X modifier in my youth. As an aviation enthusiast I was introduced to the radical X-3 Stiletto. The Douglas Aircraft Company designed and manufactured the X-3 Stiletto experimental jet aircraft for the U.S. National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The NACA was the precursor of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
X-Plane it to me
The X-3 looks like a personification of the beaked-nose white spy from Mad magazine’s Spy vs. Spy, with its a slender fuselage, a long tapered nose, and ultra-modern white-on-white paint scheme. The United States military developed a series of experimental airplanes, helicopters and rockets — collectively referred to as “X-Planes” — that were used to test and evaluate new technologies and aerodynamic concepts:
The majority of X-Plane testing has occurred at Edwards Air Force Base. Some of the X-planes have been well publicized, while others, such as the X-16, have been developed in secrecy. The first, the Bell X-1, became well known after it became, in 1947, the first aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight. Later X-planes supported important research in a multitude of aerodynamic and technical fields, but only the North American X-15 rocket plane of the early 1960s achieved comparable fame to that of the X-1. X-planes 7 through 12 were actually missiles(used to test new types of engines), and some other vehicles were un-piloted (some were remotely flown, some were full-on drones). (Wikipedia: X-Plane)
The Many Uses of X
In addition to designating an experimental aircraft, X has had many other uses over the years. X is a common variable for unknown or changing concepts in mathematics. In astronomy, X stands for a comet of unknown origin. On treasure maps, “X marks the spot” where the treasure is buried. In bowling, X signifies a strike. And X is a placeholder for the legal signature of an illiterate person. On a more romantic note, Xs symbolize the kisses paired with the Os of hugs in warmhearted salutations.
Besides these common uses, the X modifier is often deployed as branding shorthand to differentiate some person, product, or service as being advanced, audacious, bleeding-edge, bold, contemporary, daring, earth-shattering, forward-looking, fresh, game-changing, genuine, ground-breaking, gutsy, innovative, modern, newfangled, novel, original, pioneering, rejuvenated, sophisticated or unique. Obviously, the use of X is everywhere, and seems to be the gift the keeps on giving. So I decided to look into the origins of the X that so often marks the spot. Here is a brief summary of my findings.
A Brief History of X (1895 -2014)
1895 | X-Rays
Physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovers X-rays. Röntgen named it X-radiation to signify an unknown type of radiation.
1908 | The X
An early French automobile.
c. 1920-1930 (date unknown) | BX /PX
Exchanges are known as a Base Exchange (BX) in the U.S. Air Force, whereas they are referred to as a Post Exchange (PX) in the U.S. Army. Over the next few years, exchanges operated by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) were eventually rebranded simply as an Exchange (X) to simplify differentiation between the similar sounding BX and PX names.
1930s | LAX
Prior to the 1930s, existing airports used a two-letter abbreviation based on the weather station at the airports. So, at that time, “LA” served as the designation for Los Angeles International Airport. But with the rapid growth in the aviation industry, the designations expanded to three letters, and LA became LAX. The letter X does not otherwise have any specific meaning. Additionally, “LAX” is often used today as an indicator of identity by local residents.
1936 | The X-Acto Knife
Invented by Sundel Doniger, a Polish immigrant to the United States. Doniger had planned to sell his fancy knife to surgeons as a scalpel, but it was not acceptable, because it could not be cleaned. His brother-in-law, Daniel Glück (father of poet Louise Glück), suggested that it might be a good craft tool. The X-Acto knife may be called a utility knife, but it is actually a short, sharp blade mounted on a pen-like aluminum body, used for crafting and hobbies, such as modelmaking.
1938 | X-Ray Vision
Among the best known figures with “x-ray vision” is the comic book character Superman. However, the first “person” with X-ray vision in a comic book was Olga Mesmer in 1938s Spicy Mysteries. Olga was also one of the first female superheroes.
c.1939 | XU
X for “unknown” and U for “undercover agent,” XU was a clandestine intelligence organization working on behalf of Allied powers in occupied Norway during World War II. Most of XU’s operations, and its organizational structure, were kept secret until 1988. The name of the organization may have derived from Lauritz Sand, one of the founding members, who had previously worked for British intelligence in Dutch India.
1946 | X-1
The U.S. Air Force supersonic research project built by the Bell Aircraft Company. It was the first aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight.
1950 | Malcolm X
Human rights activist Malcolm Little began signing his name “Malcolm X” in 1950. He explained in his autobiography that for Muslims, “X” symbolized the true African family name that he could never know. “For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.”
1951 | The Man from Planet X
A science fiction film directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.
1952 | X-2
The X-2 “Starbuster” was a research aircraft built by Bell Aircraft Company to investigate flight at Mach 3.
1952 | X-3
The Douglas Aircraft Company manufactured the the X-3 “Stiletto” experimental jet aircraft.
1953 | Generation X
The photographer Robert Capa coined the term “Generation X” in the early 1950s. He later used it as the title for a photo essay about young men and women growing up immediately after the Second World War. Describing his intention, Capa said, “We named this unknown generation, The Generation X, and even in our first enthusiasm we realised that we had something far bigger than our talents and pockets could cope with.”
1957 | The Strange World of Planet X (book)
A British science fiction novel by Rene Ray. The storyline: A monomaniacal scientist has invented ultra-sensitive magnetic fields, which begin to attract objects from space. Accordingly, strange things begin happening, including a freak storm, and insects and spiders begin to mutate into giant monsters. Finally, an alien spaceship appears over London and begins to warn mankind against the dangers of this scientific experiment.
1958 | The Strange World of Planet X (movie)
British science fiction horror film, and a cautionary tale about science. It was also known as Cosmic Monsters, The Crawling Terror, The Cosmic Monster, and The Crawling Horror. The film was adapted by Paul Ryder from the 1957 Rene Ray novel of the same name.
1959 | X-15
The North American Aviation X-15 was a rocket-powered aircraft operated by the United States Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as part of the X-plane series of experimental aircraft.
1960 | Group X
A British instrumental band.
1961 | X-15
A by film Richard Donner that presents a fictionalized account of the X-15 aircraft.
1963 | The X-Men
A team of mutant superheroes created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
1963 | X
A science-fiction film subtitled “The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.”
1965 | LZ X-Ray
The site of the first major battle of the Vietnam war, where 450 U.S. soldiers were dropped into a small clearing in the Ia Drang Valley as part of the U.S. airmobile offensive codenamed Operation Silver Bayonet.
1965 | Generation X
A book on popular youth culture by British journalists Jane Deverson and Charles Hamblett. It contains interviews particularly with teenagers who were part of the Mod subculture.
1968 | X Rating
A motion picture rating used between 1968-1990. The most explicit films received the X rating, films such as Midnight Cowboy, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, A Clockwork Orange, Fritz the Cat, and Last Tango in Paris. Pornographers made heavy use of the X rating, so it became associated largely with pornographic films. This led to a situation in which non-pornographic films given an X rating had fewer theaters willing to book them and fewer venues for advertising, since many newspapers refused to advertise X rated films. As a result, a number of films were released unrated, sometimes with a warning that the film contained content for adults only. In response, the MPAA eventually agreed in 1990 to a new NC-17 rating.
1972 | BMX
BMX or Bicycle motocross is a cycle sport performed on BMX bikes, either in competitive BMX racing or freestyle BMX, or else in general on- or off-road recreation.
1973 | X-24
An experimental aircraft developed from a joint USAF-NASA program. It was designed and built to test lifting body concepts, experimenting with the concept of unpowered reentry and landing, later used by the Space Shuttle.
1976 | Generation X / GenX
An English punk band featuring Billy Idol, Tony James, Bob Andrews, and Mark Laff.
1976 | XTC
A new wave, alternative rock, psychedelic pop group from Swindon, England. All in all the band enjoyed some success, including the hits “Making Plans for Nigel,” “Senses Working Overtime,” and “Dear God.”
1977 | X
The Los Angeles punk band featuring Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake. Much of X’s early material had a rockabilly sensibility. Doe and Cervenka co-wrote most of the group’s songs, and their slightly off-kilter harmony vocals remain perhaps above all the group’s most distinctive element.
1978 | X
An “electronic/space music” album by German musician Klaus Schulze.
1978 | x86
The term x86 denotes a family of backward-compatible personal computer instruction set architectures based on the Intel 8086 CPU. The term x86 derived from the fact that early successors to the 8086 also had names ending in “86.”
1979 | INXS
INXS (pronounced “in excess”, in-ex-ess) was an Australian rock band fronted by lead vocalist Michael Hutchence.
1980 | X-Ray
A member of the Marvel Comics supervillain team U-Foes.
1982 | X
A Japanese heavy metal rock band.
1983 | X: Writings ’79–’82
American avant-garde composer John Cage’s attempt, “to find a way of writing which comes from ideas, is not about them, but which produces them.”
1984 | X-29
The Grumman X-29 was an experimental aircraft that tested a forward-swept wing, with canard control surfaces.
1984 | X Window System
In computing, the X Window System (X11, X, and sometimes informally X-Windows) is a windowing system for bitmap displays, common on UNIX-like operating systems. X in this case provides the basic framework for a GUI environment: drawing and moving window. It was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
1986 | X
A Norwegian film directed by Oddvar Einarson.
1986 | MX missile
The LGM-118A “Peacekeeper,” also known as the MX missile (for Missile-eXperimental), was a land-based ICBM deployed by the United States.
1986 | X
The stock symbol for United States Steel Corporation / USX Corporation.
1987 | SXSW
South by Southwest is a set of film, interactive, and music festivals and conferences that take place every year (usually in March) in Austin, Texas.
1990 | X
Australian rock band INXS’s seventh studio album.
1991 | X-31
The Rockwell-Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm X-31 Enhanced Fighter Maneuverability program was designed to test fighter thrust vectoring technology. Thrust vectoring allows the X-31 to fly in a direction other than where the nose is pointing, resulting in significantly more maneuverability than most conventional fighters.
1991 | Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture
The Douglas Coupland novel that popularized the term Generation X, which refers to Americans who reached adulthood in the late 1980s.
1992 | X
An early three-dimensional first-person shooter-type video game released for the Game Boy in Japan.
1992 | X
Japanese manga, anime film and anime television series.
1993 | The X-Files
A science fiction television series created by Chris Carter.
1993 | X-Plane
a computer flight simulator created by Laminar Research.
1994 | FX
A TV channel owned by the Fox Entertainment Group /21st Century Fox. FX originally was an initialism of “Fox Extended.”
1995 | X Games / Extreme Games
ESPN’s annual extreme sporting event.
1995 | Planet X Television
Planet X Television was a TV show with a focus on action and extreme sports. Prime Sports (now known as FSN / Fox Sports Net) launched the show in 1995, the same summer as ESPN’s X Games (then known as the Extreme Games).
1995 | X Prize Foundation
A non-profit organization that designs and manages public competitions intended to encourage technological development that could benefit mankind.
1996 | XML
Extensible Markup Language (XML) is a markup language that defines a set of rules for encoding documents in a format that is both human-readable and machine-readable.
1997 | Xfm
An English brand of commercial radio stations focused on alternative music.
1999 | XM Satellite Radio
In 1992, American Mobile Satellite Corporation (AMSC) established a unit called the American Mobile Radio Corporation dedicated to developing a satellite-based digital radio service; eventually this was spun off as XM Satellite Radio Holdings, Inc. in 1999. The satellite radio service was officially launched on September 25, 2001.
1999 | DMX
Earl Simmons, better known by his stage names DMX and Dark Man X, is an American rapper and actor. DMX released his best-selling album, ...And Then There Was X, in 1999. The album featured the hit single “Party Up (Up in Here).”
2000 | XRay Magazine
A monthly urban arts and issues publication based in Cincinnati, Ohio.
2000 | X-35
An experimental aircraft developed by Lockheed Martin for the Joint Strike Fighter Program.
2000 | X-Men
A superhero film based on the Marvel Comic. The film was directed by Bryan Singer and features an ensemble cast that includes Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen and Halle Berry. It depicts a world in which a small proportion of people are mutants, whose possession of superhuman powers makes them distrusted by normal humans.
2000 | X.com
Founded by Elon Musk after several consolidations, it was renamed PayPal and expanded rapidly in 2001 primarily as a result of its use on eBay.
2000 | FedEx
Federal Express changed its name to FedEx and re-branded all of its subsidiaries. OK, technically an “Ex” rather than an “X”, but heck, it’s a ubiquitous phonetic “X” if ever there was one.
2001 | Xbox
Microsoft’s video game console.
2002 | SpaceX
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation is a space transport services company. It was founded by former PayPal entrepreneur and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk.
2003 | Operation Planet X
Elements of the US Army 1st Brigade Combat Team, US 4th Infantry Division, and Task Force Ironhorse conducted a raid near the Iraqi village of Ad Dawr named “Operation Planet X,” as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Evidently, the name of the operation may have been inspired by the cartoon Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century.
2004 | The X Factor
A reality TV music competition created by Simon Cowell.
2005 | Xbox 360
Competes with Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii as part of the seventh generation of video game consoles.
20xx | Google X
A semi-secret facility run by Google dedicated to making major technological advancements. Sergey Brin, one of Google’s co-founders, and the scientist and entrepreneur Astro Teller oversee the work at this lab.
2006 | Xmarks
Xmarks, formerly Foxmarks, was a San Francisco-based company which produced an add-on to web browsers, also entitled Xmarks. The company was founded in 2006 by Mitch Kapor and was acquired by LastPass in December 2010.
2007 | Google Lunar X Prize
A space competition organized by the X Prize Foundation, and sponsored by Google. The challenge calls for privately-funded spaceflight teams to successfully launch a robotic spacecraft that can land and travel across the surface of the Moon while sending back to Earth specified images and other data.
2010 | Xfinity
Comcast Corporation’s cable division.
2011 | X: Night of Vengeance
A Film by Jon Hewitt. The tagline reads, “A jaded call-girl. A fledgling hooker. The night from hell.”
2013 | X-56
A modular unmanned aerial vehicle designed to explore High Altitude, Long Endurance (HALE) flight technologies.
2013 | IEX
An American stock exchange, organized as an alternative trading system.
2014 | X-Men: Days of Future Past
The seventh film in the X-Men film series.
Source: The primary source consulted for this post was Wikipedia.