You know, we often talk about ultrasounds as though they’re this new-fangled technology that we discovered. The truth is ultrasound technology has been around for a long time, it’s just that it has recently evolved rapidly. Now, it is constantly evolving and that is in terms of both treatment and diagnosis. By the year 2020, there will almost twice the number of medical sonographers as there were back in 2010. It’s an exciting field to be a part of and there is a vast history to explore.
The Earliest Invention
The story begins in 1794 with Lazzaro Spallanzani, an Italian physiologist, who started studying bat echolocation. This is what forms the basis for the physics behind ultrasounds. However, it wasn’t until almost 100 years later in 1877 that brothers Jacques and Pierre Curie, French physicists, discovered piezoelectricity. Ultrasound probes could use piezoelectricity to receive and emit sound waves.
By 1915, the technology took a different turn. The Titanic had sunk and Paul Langevin, another French physicist, was asked to invent a device that would be able to detect objects located on the bottom of the sea. This is when the hydrophone was invented, and it is now referred to as the very first transducer.
Through the 20s and 40s, sonograms were used as a means of physical therapy in treating European soccer players. It was used to relieve the pain from arthritis and even eczema as well as for sterilizing vaccines.
The Progress Resumes
It was in 1942 that sonography was used to make its first medical diagnosis. Karl Dussik, an Austrian neurologist, used an ultrasound beam to detect brain tumors. It was in 1948 that Dr. George Ludwig used an A-mode ultrasound to find gallstones in a patient at NMRI (the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland).
B-mode ultrasound equipment was advanced by University of Colorado doctors Joseph Holmes and Douglas Howry and it was in 1951 that John Wild and John Reid invented a handheld device that could detect tumors in breasts.
Finally, in 1953 a German engineer, C. Hellmuth Hertz, and Swedish physician, Inge Edler, first successfully performed an echocardiogram. While it was in 1958 that Scottish professor Dr. Ian Donald combined ultrasound into the field of OB/GYN.
John Reid was also involved in the design of Doppler technology, along with Dennis Watkins and Don Baker, and it was their developments which allowed for doctors to get imaging of blood flow throughout the heart. Doppler technology progressed throughout the 70s and the 80s saw the first sight of 3D technology.
It was in 1989 that sonography was used for lungs in the ICU and the 90s ushered in the more sophisticated aspects of 3D imaging and into 4D as well.
The Current State of Affairs
Just as every technology that we enjoy today ultrasound technology is developing rapidly (as rapidly as mobile phone and tablet technology is). They are available in full-size machines and as small as a handheld device that can go into space! There’s even an app for a mobile phone to allow untrained people to perform an ultrasound in remote locations (as remote as space as it was developed by NASA).