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The very first engine to power a dentist's drill was a pedal-operated spinning wheel introduced at the end of the 18th century, reportedly by American President George Washington's dentist, John Greenwood. This was the extent of the dental engine's technology until the dawn of electricity another century later. By that time, a reclining dental chair had been invented, with an encased motor beside or inside the chair to power dentists' drills. This station has evolved to incorporate many tools of the dental field — from sink basins and water flossers to high-lumen lights and suction-supplying air compressors.
Dentistry dates back some 10,000 years to crude drillings performed in Middle Eastern countries with manual, bead-making equipment. The extraction and bridging equipment, largely confined to barber chairs, remained elementary until 1790, however. That is when the first dental engine came along to power the first high-speed drills. This allowed for the expedient removal of tooth decay and the insertion of fillings that effectively saved the teeth from immediate extraction.
The dawn of electricity and the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries gave rise to a dental machine that used alternating current to power equipment. In 1871 the dental engine was truly born when George Green unveiled the first electric drill engine, which could roll from patient to patient. These engines were often alongside reclining dental chairs that could double as barber chairs — for serving customers seeking dental work or just a shave.
In the ensuing century or more, innovation led to the typically cluttered dental engine station of the early 21st century. As new equipment was devised, it could be incorporated into the single engine unit, which could power not just drills but also an air compressor and high-powered, adjustable light. These stations also regularly contain a small sink and water flossing station as well as storage compartments and trays for a dentist to have all needed tools within an arm's reach.
One of the dental engine's more recent developments is the addition of computer equipment. This allows a dentist to show patients x-ray or even real-time video of their teeth, while still reclining in the chair. Though manufacturers will try to stack a dental engine with as much equipment as a dentist can afford, other times the engine or compressor will be separately located, perhaps in a closet nearby with cabling or hosing connected to several patient stations.