The pedal-operated dental drill

Timeline. When were foot-operated dental drills used?

Archeologists have discovered human teeth presenting grooving that indicate the use of some form of dental drill dating 9,000 years back.

It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the electric dental drill was invented. Before and even decades after the electric drill was patented, dentists used pedal-operated dental drills for dental treatments.

In the second half of the 19th century several important inventions were noted:

  • Erado—a noisy and somewhat faster clockwork dental drill invented by a British dentist;
  • the pneumatic pedal-operated dental drill—invented by an American dentist;
  • the electric drill—the most revolutionizing dental invention of the century.

In the mid 20th century air turbine drills were developed by a dentist in New-Zeeland.

How did the pedal dental drill look like?

If interested, there are such pieces in museums. Basically, there was a small drill on end of an arm; the elbowed arm was connected to a pole; the lower part of the pole sustained a flywheel operated by a pedal. The flywheel was connected to the drill via a flybelt and several cogwheels.

These relatively simple mechanisms were often decorated and carefully shaped, thus being interesting to look at even if you do not have a special interest in the history of dental tools.

Of course, there are more modern versions of the dental drill with foot pedals, but perhaps not as fascinating as the one presented above.

Mechanical drills? Were they any good?

Mechanical drills had basically the same principle as modern drills, except they were significantly slower (up to 15 rpm as compared to 3,000 rpm—the speed of the electric drills used at the beginning of the 20th century, and 400,000 rpm—the speed of a modern dental drill; however, there are precision handpieces that can operate at 800,000 rpm). This resulted in rather painful dental procedures which created the myth of the “terrifying drill” still present among modern patients. Otherwise, they were quite effective.

Modern alternatives

Modern dental offices often have laser or air ablation systems that replace the old drill.

In time, these will eventually eliminate the use of dental drills and they will all become museum pieces and hobbyists’ tools and toys.

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