Who First Used a Powered Dental Drill?
The first powered dentist’s drill was made by George Washington’s dentist, John Greenwood, who adapted his mother’s spinning wheel with its foot treadle to rotate his instrument. Earlier dentists had operated their drills by means of bow-strings, a method which must have required skill, determination and physical stamina on the part of the dentist, as well as a great deal of courage from the patient. Later drills were operated by turning a handle at the side.
In 1829, James Nasmyth, the Scottish inventor of the steam hammer, used rotary power to improve the efficiency of the drill. A hand-operated drill with a flexible cable was patented by Charles Merry, an American dentist in 1858; and George Harrington, an Englishman, invented in 1864 a drill driven by a clockwork motor.
In 1864, British dentist George Fellows Harrington invented a clockwork dental drill named Erado. The device was much faster than earlier drills, but also very noisy. In 1868, American dentist George F. Green came up with a pneumatic dental drill powered with pedal-operated bellows. James B. Morrison devised a pedal-powered burr drill in 1871.
The first electric dental drill was patented in 1875 by Green, a development that revolutionized dentistry. By 1914, electric dental drills could reach speeds of up to 3000 rpm. A second wave of rapid development occurred in the 1950s and 60s, including the development of the air turbine drill.
The modern incarnation of the dental drill is the air turbine (or air rotor) handpiece, developed by John Patrick Walsh (later knighted) and members of the staff of the Dominion Physical Laboratory (DPL) Wellington, New Zealand. The first official application for a provisional patent for the handpiece was granted in October 1949. This handpiece was driven by compressed air. The final model is held by the Commonwealth Inventions development Board in Canada.
The New Zealand patent number is No/104611. The patent was granted in November to John Patrick Walsh who conceived the idea of the contra angle air-turbine handpiece after he had used a small commercial-type air grinder as a straight handpiece. Dr. John Borden developed it in America and it was first commercially manufactured and distributed by the DENTSPLY Company as the Borden Airotor in 1957. Borden Airotors soon were also manufactured by different other companies like KaVo Dental, which built their first one in 1959.
Current iterations can operate at up to 800,000 rpm, however, most common is a 400,000 rpm “high speed” handpiece for precision work complemented with a “low speed” handpiece operating at a speed that is dictated by a micromotor which creates the momentum (max up to 40,000 rpm) for applications requiring higher torque than a high-speed handpiece can deliver.