A look back: The history of ultrasound

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A look back: The history of ultrasound

por Sean Ruck, Contributing Editor | May 18, 2018

One of the other ways ultrasound has become embroiled in controversy revolves around the insight it offers. Prior to the use of the technology, information about the early status of a woman’s pregnancy and the development of the fetus was usually dependent on the woman – how she felt, how her body was reacting. After the introduction of ultrasound, however, the ability to best-interpret the status of the pregnancy shifted from patient to doctor. Doctors could take a look directly at the fetus, check limbs, and the development of organs. By the early 1980s, with the introduction of real-time ultrasound imaging, the beat of the heart could be seen – long before it could be heard.

With the advance in technology came the public’s better understanding of the development of the fetus, and came a greater outcry around abortion. Whereas still images could be explained to the layperson, the movement within the real-time imaging made it so much clearer what was what, and for a good portion of the population, seeing the flutter of a heartbeat was enough to firm their resolve against allowing abortions.

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Interestingly, further advances in the technology made it more confusing for the general public to understand what they were looking at, with 3-D and 4-D imaging requiring explanation once again.

Alongside the improvement in imaging quality and the introduction of real-time imaging in ultrasound has also come the improvement of usability and practical applications. The early equipment was large, taking up a full 12 by 12-foot room. Today, just as computers that once filled an entire room are dwarfed by the processing power of the smartphone carried in a purse or pocket, ultrasound equipment has gone mobile. This has allowed it to be used on the battlefield, in the wilderness and in space.

It’s something to consider that the earliest existing photograph was taken nearly two centuries ago, but today many photo albums include an ultrasound image of a fetus that’s clearer than the buildings Niépce could see just outside his window.

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