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Pulse-measurement, sphygmometers and sphygmographs

Sphygmograph in use, from a publication by Etienne Jules Marey, 1885.

Sphygmograph in use, from a publication by Etienne Jules Marey, 1885.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Taking the pulse is diagnostic practice found in many medical traditions, from Galenic to Traditional Chinese Medicine and Unani Tibb. In the Western tradition, physicians have made attempts to quantify this observation since the early modern period. The Italian physician Sanctorius invented a ‘pulsilogium’ to count the pulse with the aid of a pendulum, and the British physician Sir John Floyer (1649-1734) introduced the second hand on watches to time the pulse more accurately.

In 1831 Julius Hèrisson developed the 'sphygmomanometer' (or 'sphygmometer' for short), an instrument to display the pulse beat visually. This instrument was improved over the course of the 1800s. In 1854 the German physiologist Karl Vierordt (1818-84) combined Hèrisson's instrument with a device to record the movement of the pulse on paper. His ‘sphygmograph’ could be used to record a human pulse over a longer period of time. In 1863 the French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey improved the device by making it portable.

In the late 1800s blood pressure measurements became routine in hospitals and were recorded on patients' charts together with other data such as temperature. Further developments in the late 1800s and early 1900s led to the development of the cuffs that we use to measure blood pressure today.


Related links


Anon (P H G), 'Measurement of the pulse: the sphygmometer, "an instrument which makes every action of the arteries apparent to the eye", invented by Dr Jules Hèrisson, with remarks on its utility in the study of disease', The Lancet, 1/578 (1834-35), pp 22-27

C Lawrence, 'Physiological apparatus in the Wellcome Museum. Pt. 1, The Marey sphygmograph', Medical History, 22 (1978), pp 196-200

C Lawrence, 'Physiological apparatus in the Wellcome Museum. Pt. 2, The Dudgeon sphygmograph and its descendants', Medical History, 23 (1979), pp 96-101


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