Brief History of Dental Equipment and Instruments

Dental Equipment

Humans have obviously suffered with various dental problems throughout history, but when did we start to effectively treat these problems?

There is some evidence to suggest that there were dental instruments in use as far back as 5000 BC! The ancient Egyptians had dentists, who were regarded as very important and highly respected people. There are skulls which have tiny holes drilled into the jaw bone – which some believe was an attempt to relieve the pressure caused by dental abscesses. Dental drills have been discovered in Egyptian tombs, there are pictures, in wall carvings, of dental forceps, ancient writings about treatments for dental pain, and physical evidence showing that gold wire was used to splint loose molars to adjacent teeth.

Dental Equipment Tools

Dental equipement in the sterilizing process

Ancients Greeks used mint flavoured toothpaste and ancient Romans were known to recommend an early form of oral hygiene, where rinsing of the mouth was to be done each morning. The Romans made impressive dental bridges from ox bone and gold wire. Most ancient dentures were made using ivory, bone, or boxwood.

It seems that dental health and perhaps the appearance of our teeth have been important throughout human history!

The very first high speed contra-angled handpiece was invented in 1957 it achieved 30,000 rotations per minute and improved dental treatment immensely , this handpiece was based on an earlier design that had been developed from the basic foot treadle spinning wheel!

The first known dental chair was invented in 1790, complete with headrest and a tray to hold the instruments on. Later, in 1832 an improved chair came about which reclined allowing easier access and viewing for the dentist.

The rubber dam was invented in 1864, the first x-ray machine specifically for dentists was developed in 1895, and the nylon bristled toothbrush was around in 1938.

Dentistry has a long and interesting history, but it seems that what we would now consider the basics of dentistry, with regards to instruments and equipment happened in the late eighteenth century.

Without these developments in dentistry and indeed medicine we would not be as advanced as we are today.

Dentistry is constantly evolving, in particular instruments, equipment and materials have come a very long way, even in recent years!

There are literally hundreds and hundreds of dental instruments available today, each one designed and shaped for a specific task or treatment.  Most instruments are named after the person who invented them, such as the ‘Wards wax carver’, or the ‘Mitchells osteo trimmer’, which, when learning the names of instruments used in the dental surgery, can make this task slightly daunting, however, with practice and experience knowing the names of the instruments becomes second nature, particularly when you understand what the use of each instrument is. It’s all down to logic!

Some instruments are more common than others, such as those used for a dental examination;

Dental Exam Instruments

  • Dental probe -usually either sickle, right angled or briault
  • Mouth mirror – various sizes and surfaces available
  • Tweezers – usually contra-angled, can be locking tweezers, most common is College tweezers
  • Periodontal probe – marked at different lengths to enable accurate measuring of periodontal pockets

Dental Filling Instruments

  • Mouth mirror
  • Probe
  • Tweezers
  • Wards wax carver
  • Flat plastic
  • Amalgam plugger
  • Ball-ended burnisher
  • Excavator
  • Amalgam carrier
  • Dappens pot

Extraction instruments

  • Mirror
  • Probe
  • Tweezers
  • Forceps
  • Elevators – Cryers, Warwick James
  • Luxators

All dental instruments are made up of a handle and at least one working end, they are most often made of either stainless steel, plastic, carbon steel or other metals.

The best way to learn about dental instruments is by gaining experience and knowledge in a dental surgery, or through studying a textbook about dental instruments, such as Basic Guide to Dental Instruments (Basic Guide Dentistry Series) – by Carmen Scheller-Sheridan, or even through dental suppliers catalogues.

About the author

I’ve been a dental nurse for over 13 years, and have worked in various parts of the country in orthodontic practices, general dental practices, within the community dental services, for both NHS and private practices. Within that time I’ve seen quite a few changes, not only with the way services are provided, changes in laws and regulations but also with the use of new materials and more advanced treatments. The one thing that hasn’t changed at all in my time as a dental nurse is the importance of people receiving and understanding clear information about dentistry, treatments, regulations and jobs for example.


  1. Madeline Morgan says:

    the best way to avoid dental problems is to always see a dentist.

  2. Gracie Parker says:

    dental problems can be reduced by just cutting down on sugar and visiting your dentist regularly.

  3. Dental Nurse says:

    They are the experts when it comes to teeth!

  4. Dental Nurse says:

    Yes! That and good oral hygiene at home makes dental problems far less likely!

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