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A History of Stethoscopes

The word stethoscope is derived from the two Greek words, stethos (chest) and scopos (examination). Apart from listening to the heart and chest sounds, it is also used to hear bowel sounds and blood flow noises in arteries and veins.

Rene-Theophile-Hyacinth Lannec appears to be the inventor of the stethoscope in 1816 when he used a wooden tube to listen to chest sounds. It was mono-aural and later models were made of metal and used to listen to foetal heart sounds. Some 20 years later a binaural model was developed using rubber tubes and ear pieces. Most devices had a bell shaped device used for low frequency sounds and a diaphragm which was more suited to higher pitched sounds.

These were often separate, but later in the 20th. century they were combined, ie two sided. A spring to press the ear pieces to the ears came later. In 1963 Dr. David Littmann patented a much improved version. It had a single short tube connected to a “two sided” stethoscope which bifurcated into the ear pieces. The physics seem to be based on vibrations which the chest and other noises produce. The bell receives the skin vibrations which produce acoustic pressure waves which are transmitted to the listener's ears. The diaphragm reduces the low pitched vibrations. About 10 years ago several types of electronic stethoscopes were introduced. This is similar to placing a microphone on the chest wall, but has circuits to reduce unwanted adventitial sounds.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: The following stethoscopes and end pieces have been photographed with the kind permission of the owner, Dr. Richard Bowering .

Early monoaural wooden stethoscope.


Home made wooden stethoscopes


Home made wooden stethoscope.- note soft pad on the end placed next to the listener's ear.


A patented diaphragm biaural stethoscope & container


Container lid


A collection of “bell” type stethoscopes


A collection of combined “bell” and diaphragm stethoscopes


English combined stethoscope with a lever to change between bell & diaphragm