From Monstrous to Miniscule: How Ultrasound Technology Has Evolved

Ultrasound machines have come a long way. The first ultrasound machine was a 2D scanner debuted in 1958 by Ian Donald and Tom brown. They called it the Diasonograph, but it was known in more informal and unkind circles as the Dinosaurograph.

This ancestor of the modern day ultrasound machine was 8 ft tall and occupied approximately a third of the space available in an average scanning room. The ultrasound images were static, and were created by rocking the transducer slowly over the body part being examined. This was no small feat as the gantry that housed the probe was very large as well, and much physical effort had to be exerted to alter the scanning plane. The image completely lacked any grey scale, but it would still appear eventually on a cathode ray tube. The Diasonograph’s primary contribution to medicine and ultrasound technology is that it sparked the ultrasound race.

By the early 1970s real-time machines had been developed. Companies such as Aloka and Kretztechnic then quickly transitioned from these mechanical sector real-time scanners to multi-element linear array and phased array scanners as soon as the mid-70s. The color Doppler imaging option made its debut in 1985, at around the same time when Japanese researcher Kazunon Baba began experimenting with 3D imaging. 3D/4D ultrasound became available by the mid 1990s with the 530D Voluson. By the year 2000 one could find high resolution harmonic imaging, 3D/4D capabilities, and power Doppler facilities in most ultrasound machines.

In parallel to the race for ever more progressive features, there was another race of size. The gigantic ultrasound machines of old were quickly replaced by smaller consoles. The first portable ultrasound unit became commercially available in the United States as early as 1975 from ADR (which was eventually purchased by Philips). It featured 3 linear probes and weighed only 25 pounds. Soon battery powered portable ultrasound machines were invented as well, and now ultrasound machines that can fit into one’s pocket are commercially available. The first such advanced piece of medical equipment was the Siemens Acuson P10 Handheld Ultrasound Machine. It weighs barely 1.6 lbs (.725kg).

Acuson P10 handheld

Fig. 1 The Siemens Acuson P10 Handheld Ultrasoun Machine

Companies such as GE, Philips, and Abbot are all vying to be the manufacturers of the smallest machines with the best resolution. The benefits of portable ultrasound machines are many and varied, and engineers at such companies are hard at work to make them ever more portable. The quality of images even on portable machines is phenomenal, and they have many of the features that full ultrasound consoles do, yet engineers are working to bridge the small gap between consoles and portable machines as well.

Ultrasound machines have evolved into sleek tools that are used to provide detailed images of what lies underneath the skin. It now seems impossible to imagine obstetrics without ultrasound technology. Life-threatening heart conditions are diagnosed through ultrasound machines in echocardiography every hour. Even potential future dangers are being predicted by using ultrasound to screen for blood vessel disease. Ultrasound probes have gone from a gargantuan rarity to a tiny necessity, and the future of ultrasound technology looks bright.