The Pursuit of Straight Teeth
Posted on 09/12/2022

Humans have a long history of crooked teeth! Irregularities in the alignment of teeth have been found by archaeologists in human remains that date back 50,000 years!  People realized long ago that straighter teeth looked better, worked better and even made them feel better about themselves. Americans especially take pride in having straight teeth so it’s no wonder that 4 million of us are currently wearing braces!

 The idea of “braces” to straighten misaligned teeth is nearly 300 years old, but orthodontic devices can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt.  The Egyptians were quite ingenious in that they would make thin cords from the dried intestines of sheep and horses and tie them around metal posts placed the teeth- a system not unlike modern orthodontic wires.  These devices were mostly placed posthumously because the Egyptian culture placed such a strong emphasis on the afterlife. Thus, the eventual discovery of tooth straightening devices on ancient Egyptian mummies! It wasn’t until several thousand years later, around 400 BCE, that tooth straightening devices made of fine gold wires were used on living people in ancient Rome. The first known written description of tooth “irregularities” is credited to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, and the word orthodontics is also of Greek origin. Ortho means straight or correct and dont (not to be confused with "don't") means tooth. Put it all together and Orthodontics literally means straight teeth!

 Orthodontics didn’t quite become what we think of today until around 1900.  Dr. Edward H. Angle is considered the father of modern orthodontics. He founded the specialty and identified the true properties of a malocclusion, which is the misalignment of teeth and jaws.  He was the first orthodontist, meaning he limited his dental practice to moving teeth and aligning jaws. He developed increasingly effective tooth moving appliances which culminated into the Edgewise appliance. Edgewise appliances are a set of virtually identical braces for each tooth that allow movements of the teeth in all 3 planes of space.  There have been many important innovations in braces since then, but the basic premise of the Edgewise appliance is the same today. Virtually all orthodontists practicing today use a version of the Edgewise appliance.

 The materials that we use for braces have changed dramatically over time! Gold was the metal of choice for more than half of the 20th century because it was so malleable and easy to shape it into an orthodontic appliance. Orthodontists used to anchor braces to teeth by winding thin pieces of metal (we call them bands) around each tooth. During the 1970’s the use of dental adhesives became more common and allowed the profession to take a significant step forward. This meant that orthodontists could now stick the braces to the teeth surfaces using a process called enamel bonding.  Also, at this time stainless steel replaced gold or silver as the most popular choice for braces and wires. It had superior properties to gold and silver and consequently was much less expensive.  The innovations in dental adhesives and materials during the 1970’s is what allowed orthodontic treatment to take off and be more accessible to the masses.

 In recent years there has been a close relationship between space technology and orthodontics.NASA’s mission is space travel, and they continually research and develop products and technology that help astronauts to more safely and comfortably navigate and explore outer space. Many of their inventions, such as memory foam, scratch resistant eyeglass lenses and the cushiony soles of your fancy sneakers, have weaved themselves into our everyday life on Earth. NASA developed a material called transparent polycrystalline alumina (TPA) that was originally intended for missile tracking.  TPA is stronger than steel, smooth, and has light absorbing properties which make it transparent and thus perfect for use as the critical component in translucent ceramic braces.  These more esthetic ‘invisible’ braces were first introduced in the late 1980’s and have become incredibly popular!  Back in 1959 NASA developed a metal alloy called nickel-titanium which was originally designed as a heat resistant coating for spacecraft.  In the 1990’s, the field of orthodontics benefited from a significant advancement in technology when it was realized that nickel-titanium alloys were perfect for making thin, flexible wires that could maintain their shape (shape memory) once they are attached to a person’s braces. These wires work extremely well for aligning crooked teeth as they place a gentle, continuous force on the teeth over time. Further, if copper is added to the nickel-titanium alloy, the wires become quite sensitive to temperature changes. When the wire is cold it’s very flexible, but when it comes up to body temperature, it goes back to its original shape and works to align the teeth.  Talk about space age orthodontic wires!

 You don’t have to go to space or even the NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. to benefit from “out of this world” technology.  Please visit our website at for more information about orthodontic treatment or to schedule an appointment call us at Orthodontic Associates of Collegeville (610) 409-9880.