The dental drill…feared and loathed by children and adults alike, but do you know its history?

Here’s a peek at a few of the many stages in the evolution of the humble dental drill.

Slow, noisy and barely effective treatment  —  what more could patients hope for without electricity?


An early foot drill in the collection of the museum at Benco Dental, Pittston, Pa.

Prior to the 19th century, the rudimentary drill was operated by the dentist simply by twirling it between the fingers or with a crude bow drill. This type of drill was very slow. The first mechanical dental foot engine was built by John Greenwood in 1790. It was inspired by a foot-powered spinning wheel. A clockwork-type dental drill was invented in 1864 by British dentist George Fellows Harrington. While being much faster than previous drills, it was also very noisy. A James Morrison took out a patent for a foot-powered dental drill in 1872. There were small improvements in foot-powered dental drills for years after that. An electrically powered foot drill was invented by George F. Green in 1875, but as not many people had electricity at that time, electrically powered drills did not come into general use until the widespread use of electricity in dentistry after the First World War.


A page out of an SS White catalogue from the early 1900s, showing the evolution of the foot drill.

Improvement at a rapid pace

Once electricity became more commercially available, drills rapidly advanced in technology. By 1914, they could reach speeds of up to 3000 rpm. James Morrison’s system of pulleys developed in 1872 was adapted for drills right up to the end of World War II.


An electric drill from the 1940s with pulley system in the collection of the museum at Benco Dental, Pittston, Pa.

John Patrick Walsh, with members of the staff of the Dominion Physical Laboratory (DPL) Wellington, New Zealand, invented the predecessor of a modern air turbine handpiece dental drill in 1949. Belt driven high-speed handpieces appeared in the 1950s.

Current handpieces can operate at up to 800,000 rpm, however, most common is a 400,000 rpm “high speed” handpiece for precision work complemented with a “low speed” handpiece operating at a speed that is dictated by a micromotor which creates the momentum (max up to 40,000 rpm) for applications requiring higher torque than a high-speed handpiece can deliver as outlined in 2007 in the article, “Handpiece, Use, Care and Maintenance,” Franzel, Mattana, published at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry.

Pain-free future awaits

There is no doubt that the increasing speed of the handpiece has led to increasing comfort on the part of the patient. Today, the laser is starting to supplant the handpiece and the future of dentistry is looking more and more pain-free.