X-ray machines in 1896 needed ninety minutes and 1,500 times the radiation

The first X-ray machines needed patients to sit still for well over an hour, they doused people with 1500 times the amount of radiation as today's machines, and the pictures were fuzzy at best. But they were still absolutely amazing.

One of the very first medical X-ray machines was built in early 1896, mere weeks after William Rontgen first announced the discovery of this new form of radiation. It was developed by high school director H J Hoffmans and hospital director Lambertus Theodorus van Kleef in Maastricht in the Netherlands. Spurred on by Rontgen's paper, the pair built the device out of spare parts from the high school, and soon they were imaging various bits of human anatomy.

Though a remarkable achievement, their machine was soon obsolete and it was left abandoned in a Maastricht warehouse, where it remained until a TV documentary crew discovered it last year. Maastrict University Medical Center's Gerrit Kemerink decided to put this ancient machine to the test and see how it stacked up with the machines of today. Because these first generation machines had become outmoded so quickly, there haven't been any previous assessments of how these most primitive machines compare.

Dr. Kemerink explains:

"To my knowledge, nobody had ever done systematic measurements on this equipment, since by the time one had the tools, these systems had been replaced by more sophisticated ones.

One of the driving forces in improving X-ray machine technology was to reduce the high radiation doses required to obtain an image. Early engineers realized that prolonged exposure to the machines could be harmful less than a year after the machines were first built, which makes this primitive machine one of the very few surviving examples that predate the knowledge of these dangers.

Not wanting to risk anyone's health - as Hoffmans and van Kleef had inadverdently done when they imaged "a young woman's hand" more than a century ago - the researchers placed a cadaver hand in front of the device. This was a smart call - even using a modern detector, the machine required ten times the radiation dose of modern machines obtain even just a blurry image, and using the complete original apparatus required 1,500 times the modern radiation dose.

Even so, Kemerink and his fellow researchers explain just how amazing it was to work with a machine that hasn't been operated in 115 years...and still get working results:

Our experience with this machine, which had a buzzing interruptor, crackling lightning within a spark gap, and a greenish light flashing in a tube, which spread the smell of ozone and which revealed internal structures in the human body was, even today, little less than magical."

Radiology via BBC News. Comparison of X-rays taken with 1896 and modern machines via The History Blog.