Today, we drill teeth. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
My visits to the dentist
began in the mid-1930s. Dentistry in that remote
age now seems like a brutal and primitive ritual. I
was never given any anesthetic. Drills weren't air-
or water-cooled. They generated heat, and heat
meant terrible pain.
Tooth care is very old. Dental hygiene looms large
in the ancient lore of India, where it was said of
Buddha that he planted one of his tooth-cleaning
sticks, and it grew into a tree.
The Romans did some cavity filling. They used lead.
Lead fillings were widely used in 17th-century
France. The use of gold foil traces to the
ninth-century court of Haroun al-Raschid. It became
widespread in 19th-century Europe. The trick was
(and, in a few lingering instances, still is) to
tamp in layer after layer of clean gold so each
layer contact-welds to the one below it.
The foot-treadle-driven dentist's drill was
invented in 1870. When drills were given electric
power in the late 19th century, they took on more
tasks than just drilling cavities -- polishing and
shaping teeth, for example. In its early days, the
power drill was called a dental engine. It
also turns out that the rubber dam, which suddenly
sprouted in so many dentists' offices after WW-II,
was invented way back during the Civil War.
Anesthesia was a 19th-century invention. Its use
spread after Queen Victoria accepted ether during
childbirth. But Civil War surgeons still used it
only occasionally. The pain-killers most used in
dentistry before my lifetime were laughing gas for
extractions and cocaine for drilling teeth.
Root canal surgery came into general use after
WW-II. So I was surprised to find a long discussion
of it in my 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.
It was called devitalization of the pulp. But even
if the process was known, we really recognized only
one cure for a toothache when I was young. That was
extraction. The article also suggests that crowns
are best made from the healthy teeth of another
living person. Failing that, bone, ivory, or the
tooth of an ox will do.
America's first dental school was set up in 1840.
By 1878, the number of dental students in America
had grown to seven hundred, and we were living in a
new age of dentistry. Thirty years later, seven
thousand people were studying the field. So that
brutal era of my childhood, with all its
interminable unrelenting pain, was a world in
ferment. It'd be twenty years before we could go to
the dentist without expecting to do some serious
suffering, but change was afoot. Many of today's
procedures were known, and we were finally figuring
out how to use them effectively.
I think about that as I doze in the dentist's
chair, vaguely conscious of the muted hum of the
drill. Criticize modern technology if that's your
inclination. But please don't do it on a day that
I'm visiting the dentist.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds