History of Dental Technology – part 7 – Drills and Handpieces

History of Dental Technology – part 7 – Drills and Handpieces

A dental history in 8 technologies – part 7

Dentistry has changed in the 150-years or so since it became a widely understood, regulated medical profession. But some of the technologies we use today would be unrecognisable to 19th-century dentists. During that time, procedures, materials technologies, microbiology and electronics have all interacted to create increasingly cleaver instruments, tools, gadgets and procedures for dentists.

Following our well-received article on ‘Coal Fired Dentistry‘, we thought we’d take a quick look at some of the key the technologies we take for granted every day.

Drills and handpieces

A dental drill or handpiece is a fundamental tool in dentistry. It is used to remove decay, polish fillings, and alter prostheses. The handpiece provides the handle for the dentist to hold a cutting instrument, and the rotational force needed to power the instrument itself, typically a dental burr.

The dental handpiece has literally shaped dentistry as we know it. The handpiece or drill is one of the dentist’s most useful tools and is used in most restorative and many cosmetic treatments, shaping teeth and removing decay.

Photo - Bow drill

The earliest dentists used a small bow to drive flint drill tips into patients’ teeth. Bow drills like this were used for thousands of years.

It is a highly sophisticated device. Though the principles on which it is designed are relatively straightforward, dental handpieces have to be made and maintained with incredible precision because of the incredibly high rotational speeds that modern handpieces can generate.

While it’s not always been quite like it is today, dental handpieces have always been at the cutting edge of engineering technology (please excuse the pun). Archaeological evidence of the earliest known dental drill used comes from civilisation in the Indus Valley and has been dated to about 7,000BC. It’s not entirely clear how it was operated, but a slightly later dental tool used a ‘bow drill’ mechanism, twisting the cutting tool with a tensioned string.

By the late 18th-century, mechanical dental drills had been developed. These were usually turned with a hand crank and could be operated at around 15-rpm (revolutions per minute).

Photo - George Fellows Harrington's 'Erado' clockwork dental drill.

George Fellows Harrington’s ‘Erado’ clockwork dental drill. (source: BDA Museum)

In 1864, a British dentist, George Fellows Harrington in 1864 designed a clockwork mechanism to power a dental drill, named the Erado. Apparently, this was incredibly noisy, but there isn’t much comment on its effectiveness.

In 1868, an American dentist named Dr George F. Green designed a pedal-powered drill, and three years later, James B. Morrison invented a burr drill in 1871 to work with it. Devices like this could run at speeds of up to about 300-rpm.


From 300-rpm to 3,000-rpm and beyond

Drawing - The Patent diagram for G.F.Green's first electric dental drill, filed in December 1875.

The Patent diagram for G.F.Green’s first electric dental drill, filed in December 1875.

By 1875 Dr Green improved his design by adding an electric motor, and the first electric dental drill was born. This provided significantly higher speeds and considerably less physical effort for dentists and their assistants. Even so, it took a couple of decades for electricity to become widely available and for the electric drill to become generally accepted. But by the start of World War 1, they were commonplace, delivering speeds of up to 3,000-rpm.

Modern dental handpieces use air-powered turbines to generate speeds of up to 400,000-rpm. The idea of turbine-powered drills was developed by John Patrick Walsh in New Zealand during 1949.

Photo - Sir John Patrick Walsh KBE - inventor of the air-turbine powered dental handpiece

Sir John Patrick Walsh KBE – inventor of the air-turbine powered dental handpiece

Burr drill tips work more effectively and more smoothly at higher speeds – hence the constant drive for higher operating speeds. So, over the years the design has been developed and improved to provide greater speed, precision and serviceability.

Procedures have also developed to ensure the devices can be sterilised without damaging the delicate turbine or the precision bearings. And specialist precision engineering companies have flourished providing repair and overhaul services.

As a result, the turbine-powered or ‘speed increasing’ handpiece (which may also include a gearing mechanism) has helped make dental procedures quicker and more pleasant for both dentists and patients.

Using dental handpieces with Pearl

Pearl Dental Software is designed to make it easier to run your practice smoothly and efficiently, just like a turbine-powered handpiece.

This includes excellent diary management features that not only keep your practice busy, but make it easy for your nurses to understand the treatments they will see during the day, and to plan their handpiece management, oiling and serialisation procedures accordingly.

For more information, please contact us on 0116 275 9995 or email info@bhasoftware.com

Chris Webb