Pregnancy ultrasounds are well known. Do you know that its first practical use was for naval detection of large objects, propelled by the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 as it collided with an iceberg south of Newfoundland?
We’re all familiar with using ultrasound to observe pregnancies in hospital settings. Its first practical use was for naval detection of large objects, propelled by the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 as it collided with an iceberg south of Newfoundland, when one month later, the first patent for large object detection using acoustic echolocation was filed at the British Patent Office (GB191209423) by English meteorologist, Lewis Richardson. This was quickly followed by a second patent application by Richardson, again published by the British Patent Office (GB191211125). While the ‘423 patent, titled ‘Apparatus for Warning a Ship of its Approach to Large Objects in a Fog’ employed sound waves traveling through air, over the surface of the sea, the subsequent ‘125 patent, titled ‘Apparatus for Warning a Ship at Sea of its Nearness to Large Objects Wholly or Partly under Water’ is an adaptation of this method to make it work underwater.
Interest in the effects of ultrasound on biological organisms began not long after.
The therapeutic potential of ultrasound also started to emerge around the 1930s, with the notable work of the French physicist, André Dognon. Along with colleagues, Elio and Hugo Biancani, this work began in earnest with a stand-alone ‘hand-held’ transducer (referenced in the review by Duck, F. 2021). Further, the 1925 French patent by Brillouin L. titled ‘Méthode de massage vibratoire indirect et dispositif pour la réalisation de cette méthode’ which was also published in English as GB252000A and titled ‘Improvements in or relating to vibratory massage’, describes a process in which ultra-audible waves are converted into mechanical vibrations by alternating currents. They are used to “penetrate the body of the invalid [SIC] immersed in proximity in the liquid”. Improvements in therapy continued, as exemplified by Siemens 1935 patent for a elastically deformable transducer for treating patients with ultrasonic waves (DE654673C). After the second world war, several companies ventured into therapeutic ultrasound.
Ultrasound for medical diagnosis emerged thereafter, although early diagnostics were crude and full of adverse effects.
Since then, numerous guidelines and safety parameters have been put into place for the use of today’s ultrasound devices. The overall safety of ultrasound diagnostics during pregnancy is fairly well established, although still somewhat controversial, since four studies have indicated some association between the use of ultrasound during pregnancy and potential harm to the developing fetal brain, as manifested by dyslexia, delayed speech development, impaired vision and hearing and a number of other outcomes (see review by Gail ter Haar, 2011). However, much larger controlled trials (Kieler, H et. al., 1998; Salvesen, K.A., 1992, 1994) found no statistically significant associations between ultrasound exposure and dyslexia. Overall, modern diagnostic ultrasound during pregnancy seems unlikely to damage the fetal brain in utero (Torloni, M.R., 2009).
Modern diagnostic ultrasound has come a long way since the early days of Lewis Richardson’s inventions. But what is on the horizon and beyond?