History of Ultrasonics

Prior to World War II, sonar, the technique of sending sound waves through water and observing the returning echoes to characterize submerged objects, inspired early ultrasound investigators to explore ways to apply the concept to medical diagnosis. In 1929 and 1935, Sokolov studied the use of ultrasonic waves in detecting metal objects. Mulhauser, in 1931, obtained a patent for using ultrasonic waves, using two transducers to detect flaws in solids. Firestone (1940) and Simons (1945) developed pulsed ultrasonic testing using a pulse-echo technique.

Shortly after the close of World War II, researchers in Japan began to explore the medical diagnostic capabilities of ultrasound. The first ultrasonic instruments used an A-mode presentation with blips on an oscilloscope screen. That was followed by a B-mode presentation with a two dimensional, gray scale image.

Japan’s work in ultrasound was relatively unknown in the United States and Europe until the 1950s. Researchers then presented their findings on the use of ultrasound to detect gallstones, breast masses, and tumors to the international medical community. Japan was also the first country to apply Doppler ultrasound, an application of ultrasound that detects internal moving objects such as blood coursing through the heart for cardiovascular investigation.

Ultrasound pioneers working in the United States contributed many innovations and important discoveries to the field during the following decades. Researchers learned to use ultrasound to detect potential cancer and to visualize tumors in living subjects and in excised tissue. Real-time imaging, another significant diagnostic tool for physicians, presented ultrasound images directly on the system’s CRT screen at the time of scanning. The introduction of spectral Doppler and later color Doppler depicted blood flow in various colors to indicate the speed and direction of the flow..

The United States also produced the earliest hand held “contact” scanner for clinical use, the second generation of B-mode equipment, and the prototype for the first articulated-arm hand held scanner, with 2-D images.