selective focus photo of a dentist demonstrating how to brush teeth

Terrible Times for Teeth

Brace yourself for a harrowing journey back through time to look at some dental technology MOTAT has in its collection. The machines we’re used to seeing at the dentist today are innovations of these inventions. 

Raise your hand if you love going to the dentist. That was a trick question. No one does!

1800s – Pliers and Forceps

In the early 1800s (when your great-great-great-great-great grandparents were around) people used twigs or rough cloths as toothbrushes.  Instead of toothpaste, they used water, salt or charcoal. Some people used dental powders that were made from delicious things like burned eggshell ashes and animal hooves.

You can see why it was very common for teeth to become decayed!  When they did, there was no such thing as a filling, the teeth were just pulled out.

Pliers or forceps like these ones would have been the tool of choice.

Wairarapa Archive Reference: 04-135/88.digital

You didn’t even have to see a dentist to have your tooth extracted.  A doctor, chemist or blacksmith could do the job.

It was bad luck if you lived in a rural area. Your family members would have had to extract your tooth for you. 

No matter who pulled your tooth out, one thing you could be sure of is that you would be doing it without any pain relief.

It wasn’t until the 1840s that dentists started to sometimes give their patients medicine to relieve their pain.

Luckily, knowledge about good oral health care grew and new dental technology was developed.  Dentists started doing much more than just extracting teeth and more people got to keep their smile intact!

1860s – Mechanical Hand Drills

Mechanical hand drills for dentists were invented in the 1860s.  This allowed them to drill holes to remove decaying tissue and insert fillings to protect teeth from completely rotting.

These drills were turned with a crank similar to what you’d see on a can opener.  The dentist needed to use both hands to operate the drill.  They were extremely slow and could only do about 15 turns per minute (15 rpm).


1871 – Foot-Operated Treadle Drills

This foot-operated treadle drill was invented by James Morrison in 1871.  A foot-operated drill was very innovative because it meant the dentist now had two hands-free to do their work.  Some dentists even had an assistant to push the pedal for them.  These cast iron drills had four speeds and different burrs (cutting tools) could be attached for different jobs. 

While these drills were a big improvement, they were still pretty slow (300 rpm) and it could take a couple of hours to do one filling.  

Treadle drills are complex machines.  Can you spot the wheel and axle, pulleys and lever?  James Morrison took inspiration from technology used in horse-drawn mowing machines and cars.

A treadle drill in action
Close-ups of the pulleys on a treadle drill

Early 1900s – X-rays

In the early 1900s dentists in New Zealand began to use x-rays to identify decay, diseases and other problems. They now knew exactly where they needed to drill into a tooth and what to do to fix it.

Prior to x-rays, dentists had to make their best guess as to what treatment a patient needed. Or, even worse, make an incision in the gums to see what was happening in the roots of the teeth or in the jawbone.  Ouch!

1920s – Electric Drills

By the time the 1920s rolled around, dentists in New Zealand were getting really fancy and had started using electric dental drills.

They had an electric motor which made them faster (3000 rpm) and easier to use.  They still had interchangeable burrs and a foot pedal which was used to control the speed of the drill.

This is a great example of how an existing invention was innovated to make a job quicker and reduce the physical effort needed by the dentist.      

1950s – Air Turbine Drills

In the 1950s a New Zealander called John Patrick Walsh created an air turbine dental drill that rotated at very high speeds and used compressed air as the driving force.  They were much faster, smaller, and lighter than earlier drills.

Air turbine drills have been continually improved since then and are what your dentist uses on your teeth today.  The average speed is 400,000 rpm.  Remember the first drill we looked at back in the 1860s was only 15 rpm! 

This is what a modern dentist drill sounds like. Play… if you dare!

Thank Goodness for Innovation

As you can see, dental technology has come a long way.  Imagine telling someone from the 1800s that you get to have pain-free fillings while reclining in a comfortable chair and watching TV.

When your next appointment with the dentist rolls around and you’re dreading going, just remind yourself how lucky you are to be living in the 21st century.



Blacksmith – Someone who makes things out of iron and steel, like horse shoes and tools.

Complex machines – Machines that combine two or more simple machines.  Simple machines are pulleys, levers, wedges, incline planes, wheels and axels, and screws.

Harrowing – Extremely upsetting or scary

Incision – A cut

Innovation – Creating a new version of an existing invention.  Improving it.  E.g. the ballpoint pen is an innovation of a quill and ink pen.  The iPhone 13 is an innovation of the iPhone 12.

Tooth decay – When the enamel (hard outer surface) of a tooth breaks down.  This leads to cavities (holes).



Hangahanga – Invention

Hangarau – Technology

Tūwiri – Drill

Niho – Tooth/teeth

Rata niho – Dentist

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By Grace Snell, MOTAT Educator

For more stories and activities that teachers can share with students, visit our MOTAT FUN Teacher’s page!