Old, Weird Tech: World's First X-Ray Machine Edition

_51690158_xrayhand.jpgX-rays, or Rontgen rays as they were called for several decades in the early 20th century, were found emanating from Crookes tubes in 1875. Experimental discharge tubes that were built by scientists investigating cathode rays, or streams of electrons in a vacuum, Crookes tubes almost certainly gave off X-rays -- effects attributable to X-rays were noticed (and noted) by researchers at the time. But X-rays weren't systematically studied until 20 years later, in 1895, when German physicist Wilhelm Rontgen made them his passion.

Less than one month after Rontgen "discovered" X-rays, a primitive machine was built by high school director H.J. Hoffmans and local hospital director Lambertus Theodorus van Kleef, according to the BBC. On January 18, 1896, the first X-ray picture was taken.

Scientists recently unearthed that century-old machine for a television program. Testing the machine -- on a cadaver limb and not a "young lady's hand" as Hoffmans' notes suggest -- required a radiation dose 1,500 times higher (nearly 74mGy) than a modern X-ray machine when using the same photographic plate and imaging conditions that Hoffmans and van Kleef used. The old machine also required an exposure time of about an hour and a half while the new one can take an accurate picture in just 21 milliseconds. But the resulting image, though a bit fuzzier, wasn't much different than that taken with a modern machine (see the photographs above).

Radiology pioneers often suffered eye problems, burns and hair loss because of the exposure, Gerrit J. Kemerink told DOTmed News' Brendon Nafziger. Kemerink, who authored a report published online this week in the journal Radiology about the old machine, said that sometimes the damage was so bad that it required "amputations or other surgery."

Despite its many setbacks, the original X-ray machine was a powerful tool. "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," Kemerink wrote in the report.

Explore the complete Old, Weird Tech archive.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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