The Slow Evolution of the High-Speed Dental Handpiece

The invention of the electric motor-driven dental handpiece was pivotal to the development of modern dentistry. High-speed handpieces enable modern dental professionals to perform intricate surgical work efficiently and at minimal pain or discomfort to the patient. But the handpiece (also known as the dental drill) has a long and fascinating history that predates the notion of anything ‘high-speed.’

Dentistry itself is known as one of the world’s oldest medical professions, dating back to 7,000 BC. Anthropologists in Pakistan have identified human remains from that era containing drilled molars; a drilled molar has also found in a Neolithic graveyard in Denmark dating to 3000 BC. In other words, there is evidence of some form of dental handpiece existing almost ten thousand years ago.

However, these early handpieces might not have looked anything like the dentist’s drill we recognize today. Before industrialization, dental cavities were prepared very slowly, with dentists twirling long flint-tipped burs manually or with a bow-like contraption. Many of us would cringe at the thought.

Despite its lack of sophistication, this was the reality of the dental drill for hundreds or even thousands of years; it wasn’t until the mid-18th century that development of the modern handpiece began in earnest.

French physician Pierre Fauchard is credited with re-discovering dental drill technology, describing its use for root canal procedures in a 1746 publication. This version of the dental drill consisted of a long metal rod and a bow used to power it. Not long after, in 1778, a hand-crank-powered drill was introduced, followed by device powered by the motion of a foot pedal. The foot-powered mechanical handpiece was significant because it freed both a dentist’s hands for surgical work.

Handpiece innovation really kicked into high gear in the late 19th century, when the first electrically-powered drills came on the scene. By 1938, dentists used motorized belt-driven drills that spun at speeds of 2000 rpm; by 1950, 6500 rpm had become the standard. Finally, in 1959, dentist John Borden filed a patent for a air turbine handpiece with bur speeds of 250,000 rpm that revolutionized the practice of dentistry.

Borden’s patent is remarkably close to the high-speed handpieces we still see in dental practices around the world. Subsequent innovations have focused on making the handpiece smaller, more durable and more comfortable for patients and practitioners alike. Today, the best quality high-speed handpiece parts are made from lightweight, durable materials like aluminum and platinum.

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