I have dim memories of the first time I was the patient in a dentist’s clinic. It probably happened in the autumn sometime in the late 1950s. The clinic was more of an old office than a gleaming, modern place. It was located above a small department store on Main Street in downtown Wayne, Nebraska. The dentist was a kind, almost elderly gentleman.
I recall sitting on a booster cushion in a chair that resembled a barber’s chair, but had an adjustable headrest. On the right was a small porcelain “spit bowl” and on the left was a ponderous drill that today would be categorized as “steampunk”. The drill was both frightening and fascinating. It was attached to an articulated arm, much like a complicated desk lamp base. At both ends of each segment’s pivot point was a a pair of small pulley wheels. There was a series of drive belts, that resembled large rubber bands. The belts connected the pulley wheels, in series, from the floor base to the drill mechanism.
After giving an injection of novocaine from a large shiny needle, the dentist switched the drill apparatus on. The rumbling motor enabled the drive belts to rotate the pulley wheels and, ultimately, the drill itself. I recall only a couple of things about this first operation. First, I distracted myself by observing the drive belts along the segments of the drill’s arm. Second, was the low-pitched “growling” that started at the targeted molar and resonated throughout my skull.
After the torturous ordeal was finished, I was presented with a lollipop and allowed to leave the chair. I’ve often wondered why the dentist rewarded his young patients with lollipops. Maybe it was to enable repeat visits.
Another drill, or handpiece, I recall, was at the more modern and brightly lit clinic of a dentist in Lincoln, Nebraska. I remember dad saying, “Doctor Carothers doesn’t like spit.” Every tooth filling involved dental dams and the use of a short post to prop my mouth wide open. His drill was a more modern, shiny version of the articulated tool that my first dentist used. This new version rotated faster and produced a higher pitched growl in my head. The combination of not being able to adjust my jaw to swallow and the gleeming chrome drill apparatus was traumatic.
The first encounter I had with a high-speed, air-turbine handset was in a dental clinic in San Jose, California. I had postponed dentist visits because of the nightmarish encounters in Lincoln, Nebraska. However, a severe toothache motivated me to seek the services of a “painless dentist”. The clinic decor was modern, in the then current style of the 1970s. The staff was friendly and the dentist was very reassuring.
The dentist explained the features of his modern drill. He said that the “bur” could rotate several hundred thousand rpms. That meant the operation would be faster, more precise, and more comfortable. I noticed that there was also one of the belt-driven electric drills at the side of the chair. He explained that that particular “instrument” was only used for cleaning and polishing visits.
Indeed, the air-turbine drill provided a much more comfortable experience for me. There was only the high-pitched whine and sometimes a mist of water to deal with. All the subsequent visits to that dentist and to others, throughout the years, have featured air-turbine handpieces.
These memories were triggered when I noticed that today is the anniversary of the patent for the first electric dental drill. Dr. George F. Green of Kalamazoo, Michigan received a patent for his new-fangled machine on January 26, 1875. Dr. Green’s invention was a refinement of earlier dental drill designs.
The modern dental drill is first attributed to Scottish inventor James Nasmyth. His device utilized a coiled wire spring to spin his 1829 contraption. In 1858, Charles Merry, of St. Louis, Missouri, refined Nasmyths instrument by adapting a flexible cable to power the handset.
A major improvement came about in 1864 through the efforts of Englishman George Harrington. His drill was powered by the spring drive of a wind-up clock movement. Four years later, Dr. Green, mentioned above, brought out a primitive pneumatic, air drill, with power from a pedal bellows. In 1871, an improvement on the conventional mechanical drill came about when James Morrison patented his pedal bur drill. Morrison’s device featured the flexible arm with pulleys and drive belts. The power was via a foot treadle, similar to that used on antique sewing machines.
It was in 1874, that our friend Dr. Green decided to ramp up his own articulated mechanical drill by adding modern electric power. In place of Morrison’s foot treadle, Green provided a large electromagnetic motor. The following January 26th, Dr. Green had his patent in hand. By 1908, Dr. Green’s drill became more widely available to dentists’ offices that had electrical service.
The first modern air-powered dental handpiece was designed by New Zealander John Walsh in 1949. His apparatus utilized focused air pressure upon turbine air rotors. Soon, various manufacturers improved upon Walsh’s design. Variants of these handpieces are currently in use by dentists around the world.