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When Was Ultrasound Invented?

group of medical imaging professionals meeting and talking

You might know about modern sonography and ultrasound, but do you know when ultrasound was invented? Or how it was developed? Modern diagnostic ultrasonography is the result of the efforts of physicists, engineers, computer scientists, doctors, physiologists, researchers, sonographers, entrepreneurs and large commercial companies over many decades. 

In 1794 an Italian physiologist/biologist discovered that bats navigate using the reflection of high frequency sounds. His discovery became the basis of ultrasound physics and led to the development of sonar and radar systems. In 1942 an Austrian neurologist/psychiatrist used ultrasonic beams to diagnose brain tumors. A decade later, in 1952, the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine (AIUM) was founded and ultrasound began to be used to view pregnancies. 

Unlike other imaging techniques, ultrasound uses no radiation, so it's preferred for viewing a developing fetus during pregnancy. Today, most pregnant women receive ultrasounds. 

The imaging technology has continued to advance, moving from black-and-white still images to real-time moving color images. Today, with the introduction of microchips and increased processing capabilities, the imaging systems are faster and more powerful than ever before. Sonography has become an important, non-invasive medical procedure that uses the echoes of high-frequency sound waves (ultrasound) to construct an image (sonogram) of internal organs and body structures. 

Who Discovered Ultrasound? 

Lazzaro Spallanzani, an Italian Catholic priest, biologist and physiologist, made a number of scientific contributions that helped to further our understanding of bodily functions, animal reproduction, animal echolocation, biogenesis and fossils. 

Spallanzani is credited with the discovery of high frequency ultrasound. In 1794 he conducted extensive experiments on bat navigation in complete darkness. He concluded that bats didn't use their vision, but some other sense. He discovered and demonstrated that bats navigate using echo reflection from inaudible high frequency sound, making him a pioneer in the study of echolocation. 

Echolocation is when animals emit sounds to determine how far away something is by how long it takes for the sound they make to reflect (or echo) back to them. Spallanzani's study was limited to what he could observe, but his work enabled later scientists who went on to study the sensory mechanisms and processing involved in echolocation. 

Laying the Foundation for Modern Ultrasounds 

Lazzaro Spallanzani's work in echolocation laid the foundation for the study of ultrasound physics, which led to sonar and radar systems. 

In France, in 1877, Pierre and Jacques Currie's discovery of piezoelectricity was a turning point in the development of ultrasound. Piezoelectricity is the electric charge that accumulates in certain solid materials (like crystals) and in biological matter (bone and DNA) in response to applied mechanical stress. This breakthrough led to the development of underwater sonar detection systems. 

Sonar became important for submarines to use in navigation and, following the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, for use in the detection of icebergs. 

In 1914, the first working sonar system was designed and built in the United States. 

The History of Ultrasound 

Sonography as a medical diagnostic modality is relatively new. In the 1920s and 1930s, as the technology was better understood, ultrasound began to be used in physical therapy. In 1942, Austrian physician Karl Dussik became the first physician to employ ultrasound in medical diagnosis. Dussik transmitted an ultrasound beam through the human skull to detect brain tumors. 

In the 1950s, real-time ultrasound images were produced. In 1965, the First International Conference on Diagnostic Ultrasound was held in Pittsburgh. Later in that decade, Doppler imaging was used to detect peripheral vascular disease. 

In 1973, the occupation of sonographer was created through the U.S. Office of Education. In 1979, the Joint Review Committee on Education in Diagnostic Medical Sonography was founded. Over the years, the Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (SDMS) has been an advocate for the field of sonography. 

In 1975, a team at the University of Washington obtained blood-flow images using a Doppler system. The ultrasound images were encoded in color and superimposed on 2D anatomical images. Shortly after, digital scan converters began to replace analog systems. 

The 1980s brought real-time color Doppler imaging, color flow imaging and 3D volumetric scanners for imaging cardiac structures. The 1990s introduced continued improvements and studies on 4D (motion 3D) echocardiography. 

In the years since, there have been significant improvements in equipment and image quality. The development of new technologies makes it possible for ultrasound to be more widely adopted. Equipment has become smaller, more powerful and more efficient, allowing ultrasound to be used in point-of-care settings. 

Initially, ultrasound was only able to capture a single imaging plane, but today's ultrasound can capture volumes. We continue to see improvements in images and advancements in real time volumetric ultrasound.  

Sonoelastography, an ultrasound imaging technique where low-amplitude, low-frequency shear waves are transmitted through internal organs, gives physicians the ability to see areas inside tissue. This will help with thyroid nodule, lymph node and indeterminate breast lump characterization, liver fibrosis staging and the detection of prostate cancer, which can't be done using conventional ultrasound. 

The Future of Ultrasound Technology 

Over the span of a few years, the potential uses of ultrasound have grown exponentially. The use of FDA-approved contrast-enhanced ultrasound permits diagnostic imaging of lesions that wouldn't have previously been possible. 

Today's ultrasound offers better ergonomics, high-contrast resolution, high-fidelity transmission, one-touch image optimization, noise reduction, automation and stunning image detail. It makes switching between different types of patients and their necessary exams faster and easier for providers. 

Using ultrasound for diagnosis is less expensive than a lengthy surgical procedure. It reduces the need for invasive procedures and leads to faster healing, with less risk of infection. This means better outcomes and increased satisfaction for both patients and providers.

About the Author:
Gwen Duzenberry has a master's in reading education and an MBA in project management. In addition to developing training materials for Fortune 500 companies, she worked in healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and technology before becoming a freelance writer (x number of years ago).

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