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Before Pulse Oximetry

In the 19th Century three scientists ascended in a balloon to investigate the effects of oxygen availability at altitude. As the balloon gained height all three lost consciousness. Then as the balloon descended again one gained consciousness, and found both his colleagues dead. A lack of oxygen was suspected to have been a contributory factor.

During the Second World War the problem of maintaining the oxygen supply to the brain of fighter pilots became an important issue. A non invasive monitoring technique was required spectrometry was thought to be the solution.

There were two major obstacles to be overcome. Firstly in conventional spectrometry the distance through the sample is known. Secondly the sample is homogenous - i.e. there are no complications due to varying amounts of tissue and bone being in the light path.

Some of the early multi wavelength systems were compromised by pulsatile signals caused by pulsing of the blood. The ripple in the light absorption signal caused by the beating of the heart made accurate measurements of light absorption difficult.