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History of ultrasound & 3D/4D prenatal ultrasound

When you think of the word ultrasound, what image pops in your head? A pregnant person with gel on their belly, right? They see a picture of their cute little baby and get to take a copy home, or this is how they find out they are pregnant! Today these images are done with 3D ultrasound technology, and sometimes 4D ultrasound. It’s all very exciting, but the technology behind it is also exciting and has a rich history.

What is an ultrasound, anyway? Well, we already know that ultrasounds produce an image from inside the body, and are typically used in gynecology and obstetrics. Ultrasound imaging is done by utilizing sound waves at a high frequency to create an image from inside the body. It’s non-invasive, which makes it a very appealing technology to detect babies and potential health concerns. 

Ultrasound imaging is also known as sonography, and is performed by a trained medical professional using a transducer probe to transmit the sound waves it creates into the body. For example, when used on a pregnant person the sound waves bounce off of the fetus and reflect back into the receiver to create a 3D image. 

While the technology we have today created stunning 3D and 4D ultrasound images, the journey to get here was long and started as far back as the 1700s. Let’s look at the history of ultrasounds and why they are so important for obstetrics and gynecology. 

Ultrasound Modes

Before we dive into ultrasound history, it’s important to understand the different modes of ultrasound that have been developed over the years. 

  • A-Mode – This is the simplest type of ultrasound technology. It is done by one device called a transducer which scans the body. The echoes that the sound waves create create an image on a computer screen. These ultrasounds are helpful in detecting tumors. 
  • B-Mode – Also known as brightness most, this is a type of ultrasound that created 2D images 
  • M-Mode – The m here stands for motion. An M-mode ultrasound creates multiple images to detect a range of motion. This type of ultrasound was beneficial in obstetrics for being able to see if a fetus is moving or not. 

A Brief Overview of Early Ultrasound History

The history of sonography can be traced back to the late 1700s, and it all started with bats. Scientists were curious as to how bats were able to navigate through dark caves being blind. Lazarao Spallanzani, a curious scientist analyzed bats and echolocation, and wanted to figure out a way for humans to use sound in the same way. The first documentation of the idea of ultrasounds was in 1794. 

Before WW2, sonography wasn’t studied with the intention of use on the human body. Scientists focused on using sound for visual tracking for ships, and at this point it wasn’t referred to as ultrasound. We were still a long way off from the 3D ultrasounds we see today. 

It was strictly industrial, and developments started being made for ships after the Titanic sank in 1912. The problem was they could not see the iceberg, and sonography could alleviate this from happening again. Scientists wanted to find a way for ships to be able to have a visual of what was ahead of them even in bad weather conditions. 

In 1928, a Soviet Scientist by the name of SY Sokolov first proposed the idea of sonography. Sokolov wanted to use the technology to find flaws in metal structures. As we mentioned before, in the early days of ultrasound technology there was no intention for medical use.

The earliest sonography methods would use two receivers in the, one on each side of the object being examined. This sonography device was developed by Donald Sproule in 1942. The transmitter created sound waves that passed through the objects and would create shadows that the receiver on the other side would create an image where they could use the shadows to detect design flaws. While these methods are far in the past, they paved the way for the 3D ultrasound technology used today. 

Development of Sonography for Medical Diagnoses 

To understand the history of sonography, we need to know who the key players are and what they contributed. Karl Dussik, an Austrian scientist was the first person to use sonography for medical purposes in 1942. Dussik used a device to transmit an ultrasound beam through a human skull with the purpose of detecting brain tumors. Unfortunately, the images were unsuccessful and mainly showed different parts of the skull. 

Dussik published the first findings on sonography for medical purposes, and it wouldn’t be until after WW2 that the technology became a prime focus for many scientists as a safe and non-invasive way to examine the inside of the human body. 

In 1949, George Ludwig, a scientist at the Naval Military Research Institute in Maryland continued sonography research, and developed the A-mode, which is the simplest form of ultrasound technology.. Ludwig’s focus was the ability to detect gallstones in the gallbladder.. A-mode ultrasound technology is as simple as it gets when it comes to this type of imaging. The sound waves are sent through and detected on the other side to see shadows and detect something such as gallstones. 

In 1948, a University of Colorado Radiologist named Douglas Howry developed b-mode ultrasound technology. B-mode stands for brightness mode, and this type of sonography made 2D images possible. Howry spent his free time working on this technology in his basement. The technology used for 2D images made this type of ultrasound helpful in detecting breast tumors, which set the trajectory for sonography to become a staple in the OBGYN world. 

The biggest problem with Howry’s method was that it required the person being examined to be submerged in water. This created a lot of limitations, and the device had to be stationary in one space. It probably wasn’t fun for patients to be sitting in a tub of water while being examined, either. 

Moving into the 1950’s, Howry’s team went to work developing technology that would eliminate the need for water submersion in sonography. In 1957, the team developed a pan-scanner which was a mobile device that eliminated the need for someone to be in water for it to work. 

There were other scientists working on B-mode technology during this time,but the scientist credited with the invention of modern ultrasounds is Ian Donald. In 1958, Donald was the first person to add sonography to the OBGYN world to detect pregnancy and other diagnoses in the uterus. 

Modern Ultrasound Technology Development 

People were skeptical of the findings Donald and his team put together without proof. They had published the results in a paper called The Lancet and titled it “Investigation of abdominal masses by pulsed ultrasound.” 

Donald’s team’s findings in Glasgow showed that ultrasound imaging could be used to detect tumors in female genitals. They used sound waves with frequencies so high that human ears cannot hear them. He would continue working with sonography to show doctors that it was possible to detect and monitor a fetus with this non-invasive technology. 

The work done up until this point was groundbreaking, and in the 1960s development continued to make ultrasound technology even better. At this point in history, it was not commonplace as we see today. Pregnant women could not visit their OBGYN and simply get an image of their baby. 

In 1966, the creation of the Doppler changed the game. Dennis Watkins, John Reid and Don Baker worked together to create the Doppler ultrasound technology. The doppler ultrasound technology is used to detect blood flow and is excellent at finding blood clots or poor circulation in the vascular system. It is still used today to diagnose conditions involving blood in the body. 

Doppler ultrasound technology was given a lot of love in the 1970’s, including the development of color doppler which would provide color images and was the precursor for 3D ultrasounds. 

In the 1980’s Kazunori Baba of the University of Tokyo developed the first 3D ultrasound technology. 3D ultrasound technology provided a real time option for sonography and created the best images so far. It was not until the 80s that 3D ultrasounds were becoming available to OBGYN patients. 

Color doppler was developed in 1985, and fetal images were able to be seen in 3D ultrasounds with actual color instead of the black and white a traditional scan gives. 

The first image of a fetus was taken in 1986. Ultrasound technology was becoming more sophisticated and widely used. Skepticism faded away once people saw the images a 3D ultrasound could produce. 3D ultrasound technology, however, only produced still images and could not detect movement within the uterus. This technology was not necessary for imaging in other parts of the body, but it would become essential in pregnancy imaging. 

In 1987, The Center for Emerging Cardiovascular Technologies at Duke University developed a 3D volumetric scanner that worked in real-time. This scanner became crucial to imaging for cardiac problems in the chest. 

It was not until 1989 that a commercial 3D ultrasound device was available on the market. The Combison 330 became available to medical professionals to purchase for their offices. Making this technology available to the market made it easier for a pregnant person to obtain this type of imaging, and made taking care of fetal health safer. 

The 1990s was when 3D ultrasounds became commonplace in obstetrics, and that was because of Bernard Benoit. Benoit was a French doctor from Nice, and the 3D ultrasound images he published depicted a fetus in the first trimester. A machine with high resolution images, endovaginal transducers, harmonic imaging, color and power doppler facilities was on the market by 2000. These high resolution images displayed that 3D ultrasound technology would be a viable option for providing imagery for pregnancy. 

It was in the 90s and 2000s that 4D ultrasounds were also developed. 4D ultrasound is used alongside 3D ultrasounds to provide the best quality imaging when examining pregnancy. In 1996, Thomas Nelson worked on studies of 4D ultrasound technology for fetal echocardiography. 

4D Ultrasounds 

The hard work put in by doctors and scientists around the globe has paid off in the form of 3D and 4D ultrasounds. While 3D ultrasounds are commonplace in an OBGYN office, 4D ultrasounds are harder to come by. The technology is still very new. 

4D ultrasound technology works hand in hand with 3D ultrasounds. While a 3D ultrasound creates stunning images, the 4D technology creates a video that can be kept forever. Never before could expecting parents have a video of their baby before they are even born. 


To sum it up, the journey of the ultrasound is a long and winding one. With scientists trying to figure out how bats use sound to produce images as far back as the 1700s, the development of the 4D ultrasound technology we have today was inevitable. 

The question of who invented the ultrasound can be debated, but Ian Donald is credited with the invention of ultrasounds, and pioneering the technology used today. So if someone were to ask you, “who invented the ultrasound?” you can confidently answer that it was Ian Donald and his team in 1956. 

The ultrasound technology we see today is so new that it wasn’t on the market until the late 1980s. With the development of 4D ultrasound technology, scientists are still working to develop and perfect the technique. 3D ultrasounds are used more commonly, and those who wish to use 4D ultrasounds will have to find a specialist that has the proper equipment. 

At mybaby4D, we are proud to offer 3D and 4D ultrasounds to the entire Los Angeles area. Contact us today to schedule an appointment and get started!