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How did it all happen? The history of echocardiograms – Part 1. - Heartscan

The array of medical technologies and devices that are at the disposal of medical professionals today is something we all take for granted. From X-rays to proton beams to robotic surgery, the opportunities for imaging, diagnosis and treatment of our illnesses is huge.

Our hearts are no exception. Progress in scanning technologies has had an enormous impact on the ability of doctors to look after and care for our heart health, and few developments have made more of an impression than echocardiograms – where HeartScan’s expertise lies!

So in these two blogs we thought we’d take a look back at the history of echocardiograms; from bats to SONAR to electric toothbrushes (not kidding!), and find out how we ended up with one of the most important advances in heart diagnostics since the X-ray.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start”…

An echocardiogram is a scan that creates an image of the heart and all its working parts. What’s important is that it’s an ultrasound scan. The first chapter in the history of echocardiograms therefore starts with the discovery of ultrasound waves.

As with many scientific discoveries, the natural world was the key player when it came to uncovering the secrets of ultrasound. In the 1790’s the ever curious biologist, Lazzaro Spallanzani, was yet again intrigued by the scientific conundrums of the world when observing a group of bats. He was dumbfounded as to how, in complete darkness, they were able to navigate through their environments with no trouble whatsoever.

Spallanzani decided to test their use of both eyesight and hearing for navigation. He discovered that blindfolded bats were still able to navigate effectively around their environment, however bats that had had their ears plugged were no longer able to avoid obstacles.

Spallanzani concluded that the bats must emit inaudible waves and listen back to the echoes reflected by their surrounding environment. They would then be able to make calculations about distances and locations to enable them to build a picture of the world around them.

This conclusion was met with skepticism by fellow scientists that were not convinced by the existence of these mysterious waves, however it later became clear that Spallanzani was indeed correct and had in fact discovered the existence of ultrasound.

Applying ultrasound

Despite Spallanzani’s discovery in the 1700’s, it wasn’t until the late 1800’s, with the discovery of piezoelectricity or ‘pressing electricity’ (electricity or charge created within materials due to mechanical stress), that it became possible for humans to produce ultrasound waves and consequently to look for ways in which they could be used in our world.

More to come in: The history of echocardiograms – Part 2!