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Seeing the Unseen: The Past 100 Years and the Future of Medical Imaging

December 02, 2014
Thomas Edison’s light bulb patent was 16 years old when his colleague and GE co-founder Elihu Thomson modified his electric lamp technology and developed an early X-ray machine that allowed doctors to diagnose bone fractures and locate “foreign objects in the body.” The machine, which Thomson built just one year after Wilhelm Roentgen discovered and tested X-rays on his wife, launched GE into the healthcare business.

Elihu Thomson’s X-ray machine from 1896. Image Credit: GE. Top Image: The latest GE imaging systems like the Revolution CT can produce detailed images of the vascular system. Image Credit: GE Healthcare.

Today, GE Healthcare, which generated $18 billion in 2013 revenues, makes everything from magnetic resonance imaging machines (MRIs) to “4D” ultrasound scanners, super-resolution microscopes and bioreactors. Some of the technology is currently on display at the 100th annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), the industry’s “Grand Slam” gathering and tradeshow drawing some 55,000 visitors and exhibitors every year. GE is the only company that attended the inaugural meeting in 1914 and also the centennial this week.

This year, GE arrived with a new 3D mammography system called SenoClaire. 3D breast screening technology helps clinicians uncover small cancers, which can be a limiting factor in standard 2D mammography. There is also no increase in dose from a 2D standard mammogram to a 3D view, which means there is no increased radiation to patients during a SenoClaire breast exam.



A Revolution CT machine produced this image of a shoulder with multiple screws. Image credit: GE Healthcare

The company also brought its fast Revolution CT machine, which can image the heart in just one heartbeat. The system uses high-resolution and motion correcting technology similar to the image stabilization features in personal cameras. The blend of speed and clarity allows doctors to retrieve sharper images with higher resolution at lower radiation doses.

These machines draw on decades of research and commercial development starting with Thomson’s fluoroscope, the world’s first commercially available X-ray machine. In 1932, GE’s Irving Langmuir won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work that led to early coronary artery imaging. In 1973, his colleague Ivar Giaever received the Nobel Prize in Physics for research that led to the first GE MRI machine a decade later.

GE also employed Charles Gros and  Emile Gabbay, who in the 1960s developed a mammography machine and an X-ray tube that made it possible to image soft tissue with higher resolution.

Take a look at GE’s medical imaging history:


An Edison X-ray ad from 1897. Image credit: GE


GE’s William Coolidge invented what is considered the modern X-ray tube. He also developed an early portable X-ray machine. Coolidge’s X-ray machine (shown here in 1918) was used in military hospitals during World War I. Image credit: GE


In 1939, GE medical scanners produced X-ray images of mummies for the New York World’s Fair (above). Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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<em>GE produced short films explaining how X-rays work. Image credit: Schenectady Museum of Innovation and Science</em><br />
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Nobel winner Ivar Giaever poses with his superconductive tunneling experiment. It helped engineers design the first GE MRI machine. Image credit: GE


John Schenck (standing) and Bill Edelstein  testing an early GE MRI machine in 1983. Image credit: GE Global Research


Trifon Laskaris sliced the MRI machine in half. The design allowed doctors to perform brain surgery inside.


Workers at GE labs in Brazil, China, Hungary, Japan, Korea and the United States have imaged 100 everyday objects with X-rays, computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This MRI of a pineapple was one result. Image credit: GE Healthcare


This image shows complex patterns of connectivity of the human cortex measured in vivo with MRI via diffusion of water molecules in axons in the white matter. The colors depict average directional anisotropy of white matter voxels (fractional anisotropy of a diffusion tensor model) -  blue: more anisotropic, yellow: less anisotropic. The data was acquired and processed on a GE MRI scanner at 3 Tesla  (MR750), using diffusion spectrum imagingaccelerated with compressed sensing, a technique developed at GE Global Research. Image Credit: Luca Marinelli, Ek Tsoon Tan


Diffusion tractography of the brain, displaying some of the long white matter bundles (red: left-right, green: anterior-posterior, blue: head-foot).  Visible are the cortico-spinal tract fanning out in the corona radiata (blue/purple), the long cortico-cortical association bundles (green), and ponto-cerebellar fibers (orange/red). The data was acquired and processed on a GE MRI scanner at 3 Tesla (MR750), using diffusion spectrum imaging accelerated with compressed sensing, a technique developed at GE Global Research. Image Credit: Luca Marinelli, Ek Tsoon Tan