When it comes to Dental, I would never use the phrase “good old days”. These days did not exist and as a matter of fact they pretty much sucked. Born in 1966 I have experienced this technology, and it was better than 1900’s technology, but it is nowhere near what it is today. although I do sometimes reminisce about the good old days of music and television, I am quite happy to live in a world where high-tech materials, tools, medication, and procedures are the norm and where every dental issue does not result in an extracted tooth.

Old dental technolgy
source: sarasotadentallaboratory.com

What were some of the oldest Dental Technologies of the past?

Although I might be going a bit far back in the past, what better way is there to appreciate how good we have it today then to discuss some of the scary ways our dental issues were treated.

  1. Foot-Powered Dental Drill: Before the advent of electricity, dentists used foot-powered drills to remove tooth decay. The dentist would manually turn a pedal to operate the drill, which had a rotary mechanism for drilling into teeth. Slow and painful was the motto of this contraption.
  2. Dental Key: In the 18th and 19th centuries, a dental key was used to extract teeth. It resembled a large, claw-like instrument that would grip the tooth and then be rotated to extract it. This method was often quite painful and traumatic.
  3. Tooth Key Forceps: Similar to the dental key, tooth key forceps were used to grasp a tooth and then extract it by applying rotational force. These forceps had various designs and were an improvement over the dental key in terms of control.
  4. Dental Pelican: Another tool for tooth extraction, the dental pelican was a hinged instrument resembling a pelican’s beak. It would grasp the tooth and apply upward force for extraction.
  5. Amalgam Mixing: The process of mixing dental amalgam (a mixture of mercury, silver, tin, and other metals used for fillings) was done manually using a mortar and pestle. This was quite labor-intensive and required precise mixing.
  6. Dental Lathe: Dental lathes were used for shaping and polishing dental appliances and prosthetics. These were often operated manually or powered by foot pedals.
  7. Wax Molds: Before the advent of digital technology, dentists used wax to create molds of teeth and oral structures. These molds were used for various purposes, including creating dental appliances.
  8. Ether Inhalation for Anesthesia: Ether was one of the earliest forms of anesthesia used in dentistry. Patients would inhale ether to become unconscious during dental procedures, but it had risks and limitations.
  9. Dental Foot Treadle Engines: These pedal-operated engines were used to power various dental instruments, such as drills and polishers, in the absence of electric power.
  10. Dental Braces Before Modern Orthodontics: Early orthodontic devices included wires, bands, and springs that were used to apply pressure to teeth and align them. These devices were significantly less comfortable and effective compared to modern braces.
  11. Wooden Dentures: In the past, dentures were often made from carved wooden materials. These dentures were much less comfortable and realistic looking than the materials used today.
  12. Dental Alloys and Metals: Early dental materials included gold, silver, and even lead for filling cavities. These materials were less durable and sometimes posed health risks.

And of course, if you are from the U.S., you’ve heard the story of George Washington, the first President, to have had wooden teeth or dentures. The fact of the matter is that wooden teeth were never used as a substitute and in Washington’s case his teeth were made of ivory, gold, lead, and human teeth. During his life he had multiple sets of dentures which I’m sure weren’t the most comfortable and can explain why we never see Washington smile in portraits.

More recent “older” Dental Technology

In the mid-20th century, dental technology saw significant advancements and leaps that laid the foundation for many of the modern techniques and tools used in dentistry today. As the technology improved in our everyday lives during this time (TVs, Washers, Dryers, Dishwashers, Air-Conditioning, etc.) dental technology followed suit with some improvements that were considered revolutionary and not just evolutionary.  Some of the notable developments during this period include:

  1. Electric Dental Drills: Electric drills replaced manual foot-powered drills, making dental procedures more efficient and precise. These drills were quieter and easier to control, leading to improved patient comfort. Because of the speed of the drill the procedure was much quicker and less painful.
  2. X-Ray Technology: X-ray machines became more widely used in dentistry during this time. The development of intraoral X-ray machines allowed dentists to capture detailed images of teeth and oral structures, aiding in diagnostics and treatment planning.
  3. Fluoridation: The mid-20th century saw the recognition of the benefits of fluoridation in preventing tooth decay. Water fluoridation programs were initiated in many communities, leading to a significant reduction in cavities.
  4. High-Speed Drills: High-speed drills were introduced, allowing for faster and more precise cutting during dental procedures. These instruments facilitated procedures such as cavity preparation and tooth shaping.
  5. Improved Anesthetics: Safer and more effective local anesthetics were developed, allowing for better pain management during dental procedures. No more Ether and drinking a bottle of Scotch to ease the pain of the procedure.
  6. Dental Implants: While the concept of dental implants dates back earlier, the mid-20th century saw the development of modern dental implant designs and techniques that laid the groundwork for the implant dentistry we know today.
  7. Acrylic Resins: The introduction of acrylic resins allowed for the creation of more natural-looking dentures and dental appliances. These materials were more comfortable and esthetically pleasing compared to earlier options.
  8. Composite Resins: Composite resins emerged as an alternative to traditional amalgam fillings. These tooth-colored materials offered improved aesthetics and bonding capabilities.
  9. Dental Curing Lights: Curing lights that emitted specific wavelengths of light to harden dental materials like composites were introduced. This enabled faster and more efficient placement of fillings.
  10. Dental Chairs and Units: Dental chairs and units became more ergonomic and technologically advanced, providing dentists with better control over patient positioning and access to tools.
  11. Improved Dental Impressions: More accurate impression materials and techniques were developed, leading to better-fitting crowns, bridges, and other dental restorations.
  12. Endodontic Advances: Techniques for root canal treatments were refined, making the procedures more predictable and successful.
  13. Advancements in Orthodontics: The mid-20th century saw the development of improved orthodontic appliances and techniques, leading to more effective and efficient teeth straightening.

Increased Dental Technology is still not a substitute for daily dental care

These developments in dental technology during the mid to late 20th century marked a significant shift towards more advanced and patient-friendly dental care, setting the stage for even more rapid progress in the decades that followed. Unfortunately, effective, and pain-free care is not a substitute for the daily upkeep of your teeth. Brushing, flossing, and twice-yearly visits to your dentist are a must for those looking to stay healthy.

For those who fear the dentist there is nothing I can say or add to quell the fear and anxiety of visiting the dentist. But what I can say with certainty is that your experience will be much more pleasant with regular visits. If you haven’t been to the dentist in a while, or in some cases decades, you will be amazed and hopefully comforted by the dental experience an realize that you are very lucky to live in a time where a dental visit is not as bad as the hype.