March 16, 2011

Century-old X-Ray Machine Tested

Just how effective were X-ray machines from a century ago?

To find out, technicians have cranked up an aging imaging machine from 1896 to test exactly how it compares to modern technology.

Details of the research were published reported in the journal Radiology, BBC News reports.

So what were the results? Researchers claim striking images were produced despite the primitive nature of the equipment.

Using a photographic plate and the same imaging conditions a dose of X-rays 1,500 times higher than modern safety standards was required. The hand of a cadaver was used instead of the original living subjects' hand of a century ago due to the dangers of the original dosage.

"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," researchers wrote.

The resulting images were much blurrier than modern results as the machine released the X-rays over a larger and less focused area but the results are still very usable.

Wilhelm Roentgen reported his discovery of X-rays in late 1895. Several few weeks later, H.J. Hoffmans, a physicist and high school director in Maastricht, the Netherlands, and L. Th. van Kleef, M.D., director of a local hospital, performed anatomical imaging experiments with an X-ray system built from equipment at Hoffmans' high school.

Key elements of the system included a high-voltage transformer and a glass bulb with metal electrodes at each end. Within a year of the discovery and resulting use of X-ray machines, they had become both a medical and theatrical showpiece, which lead to X-ray machines being set up on street corners and image of curious bystanders being sold as souvenirs, and the first indications arose that extensive exposure could be harmful.

The high radiation doses and long exposures times of early x-ray equipment caused significant health problems for the technology's pioneers. Adverse effects, such as eye complaints, skin burns and loss of hair, were reported within weeks of Roentgen's discovery.

"Many operators of the early x-ray systems experienced severe damage to hands over time, often necessitating amputations or other surgery," Dr. Kemerink explained.

As a result, X-ray science has always been an effort to produce better images with less radiation exposure. This science has lead to modern CAT scans and MRI technology.

The X-ray machine, which was cutting-edge technology for its time, ended up in a warehouse in Maastricht and was uncovered last year for a history program on television. Then Gerrit Kemerink of Maastricht University Medical Center decided to test the equipment against what is in use inside a modern radiology lab.

"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," said Dr. Kemerink.


On the Net: