A Look at 115-Year-Old X-Ray Equipment

March 17, 2011

X-ray equipment has become far more sophisticated in the last 115 years - and uses far lower radiation doses and exposure times, researchers found recently after testing a first-generation system from 1896.

X-ray equipment has become far more sophisticated in the last 115 years - and uses far lower radiation doses and exposure times, researchers found recently after testing a first-generation system from 1896.

The researchers dug up equipment collecting dust in a warehouse in Maastricht, the Netherlands. A year ago, Jos M.A. van Engelshoven, MD, PhD, former radiology head at the Maastricht University Medical Center, retrieved the equipment for a television program, and Gerrit J. Kemerink, PhD, from Maastricht University Medical Center, decided to analyze the system. A study on the findings, which the authors said was the first quantitative data about radiation dose and other properties of the first X-ray systems, was published in Radiology.

“Our experience with this machine, which had a buzzing interrupter, 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,” the authors wrote. “Clearly, this technique left ample room for improvement.”

William Roentgen first reported his X-ray discovery on December 28, 1896. About a month later, H.J. Hoffmans, a physicist and high school director, and L. Th. van Kleef, a medical doctor and director of a local hospital, used this technology to acquire images of human anatomy.  The pair used an X-ray system built from equipment from Hoffmans’ high school, including a high-voltage transformer and a glass bulb with metal electrodes at each end.

Since then, the equipment has indeed improved, and radiation dose and exposure time were lowered by three to five orders of magnitude, respectively, researchers found.

Using the same exposure conditions used in 1896, the skin dose needed to image a hand was nearly 1,500 times greater on the legacy system (74 milligrays versus 0.05 milligrays). Exposure times were 90 minutes for the old system and 21 milliseconds for today’s systems.

Not surprisingly, the old-school system caused serious health problems, such as eye complaints, skin burns, and hair loss within weeks of Roentgen’s discovery. Many X-ray operators had severe hand damage over time, researchers said.