In a pitch-black room a series of coils buzz with electricity. A spark ignites and a greenish glow lights the dim. The "patient" tries to hold still for over an hour as an image of the inner workings of his body develops on a sheet of glass.
This was how the first X-ray machines worked in the late 1890s, but to see the process in action, one must look no further than a modern-day Dutch laboratory.
Using a piece of turn-of-the-century equipment once relegated to a museum shelf, researchers at the Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands were able to produce X-ray images as experimenters would have back in 1896, just months after Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen became the first scientist to use X-rays.
"We were able to recreate the process with rather small exceptions. One is the battery -- they used a Bunsen battery that gave off noxious gases, so we used a simple car battery instead. A second is that they used glass plates [to capture the image], but we used a more modern sulfur plate, reducing the exposure time from 90 minutes to about 20," said lead researcher Gerrit Kemerink, a medical physicist at the Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands.
They discovered not only the surprising accuracy of these rudimentary, pieced together X-ray machines, but the shockingly high levels of radiation both researchers and patients were exposed to during these historic experiments.
An 1896 X-ray machine exposed the body to 1,500 times more radiation than modern technology does, largely because each image took 90 minutes to develop, dramatically increasing the patient's cumulative exposure to the rays. By comparison, modern day X-rays require only 21 milliseconds, and technicians place lead coverings over the body to protect vital organs from even this slight exposure.
As a result, experimenters using these early X-ray machines often suffered effects such as eye complaints, skin burns, loss of hair, and ultimately, cancer.
The First X-Rays
When Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen reported his discovery of X-rays in December 1895, he set off a firestorm of interest in taking X-rays that spread across the world. Almost immediately, physicians began capitalizing on X-rays' medical uses.
"It was so incredible because this was the first time you could see inside a living human without cutting them open," says Dr. Richard Morin, a radiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. "The fact that it spread so quickly in a society without electronic communication is quite phenomenal."
This is due to a two factors, he says. One, the accessibility of the materials: early X-ray machines could be made with materials already present in most labs.
For Kemerink's experiment, researchers used a machine that had been built by Dr. Heinrich Hoffmans, a physicist and high school director in Maastricht in 1896, just one month after Roentgen's discovery of X-rays. With the help of Dr. Lambertus van Kleef, a physician, they pieced the device together with supplies from Hoffmans' high school lab. The device consists predominantly of iron rods, electric wire, a battery, a semi-vacuum glass bulb and a glass exposure plate.
The Dark Side of X-Ray Knowledge
Because there were no health regulations, no Food and Drug Administration at the time X-ray machines were pioneered, physicists and physicians could literally make their own machines and put them to use on patients or volunteers, Morin says, often with unfortunate long-term outcomes. Technicians who tested the equipment by taking images of their hands would sometimes later lose those hands to amputation when the tissue of the extremetity, exposed to too much radiation, would start to die.
"Early radiologists had a much shorter lifespan than other physicians up through the 1920s. There wasn't any shielding around the X-ray tubes like we have now, and exposure times were much longer," says Morin.
What's more, the X-rays produced by the early X-ray machines were very "soft," Kemerink says, which means that they deposited a lot more radiation on the skin's surface.
"It's a sad story. These experimenters had skin burns and things like that but people did not take precautions, even though people were already warned about some of the dangers," says Kemerink.