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A brief history of hearing aids

history of hearing aids

When we think of hearing aids today, a certain set of images readily come to mind. Maybe it’s an oversized, beige-colored hearing aid that your grandma wears, or it’s a colorful, high-tech device that your child wears. Or maybe, it’s the cochlear implant you noticed on the man at the grocery story.  Looking at the history of hearing aids, we’ve come a long way in technology over the years. 

This article briefly summaries some of the history of hearing aids.

The Diverse History of Hearing Aids

history of hearing aidsWhen asked about the history of hearing aids, people might automatically think of those large cumbersome ’60s and ’70s transistor hearing aids worn on either a pocket clip or a neck cord. Or maybe that classic aid, the ear trumpet, comes to mind.

Ear trumpets have been featured in so many movies, cartoons, and caricatures of deaf people that they have become something of an archetypal way to portray hearing loss.

The history of hearing aids is surprisingly diverse. In fact, it can be considered something of a scientific art form. There is no historical record as to how far back in history hearing devices stretch. We do know however, that there were originally two different types of hearing devices. One was for the use of deaf people. Another kind was used to hear over great distances, such as across hunting fields during battles or at sea.

“The history of hearing aids is surprisingly diverse.”

The Ancient World

In his famous literary work The Iliad, Homer mentions a speaking trumpet (850 B.C.E). The record shows that Alexander the Great made use of a suspended horn used to address huntsmen in large gatherings. The description of Alexander’s speaking horn is interesting because it is not unlike an ear trumpet, albeit on a larger scale. It was made using two horns joined together in a circle. These were twisted and had a single sound outlet tube. The opening was made into the shape of a bell to receive the sound.

Also in the ancient world, the use of sound was utilized in the construction of certain prisons, like the type known as The Dome of Dionysius. This was highlighted in Richard Strauss’s opera Salome. Prisoners were housed in dungeons with domed ceilings. Anything spoken would be fed up to the listeners above. Prior to the Christian Era, ancient Greeks used large seashells as aids to hearing. It is assumed that early musical trumpets were accidentally found to work in reverse and helped improve hearing.

Hearing Tubes

Seventeenth century Puritan courting couples used speaking and hearing tubes as a way to speak at a distance. Their strict religious rules did not allow closeness outside of marriage. At this time in history, devices seem to consist of ear funnels. These often still included the use of hunting horns. It wasn’t until the 18th century that deafness first began to be looked at from a medical standpoint.

Even this was not regarded as serious science for a long time, as can be glimpsed from this statement made as late as the 19th century by Sir William Wilde (1815-1876). He was an ear, nose, and throat specialist. Incidentally, he was also the father of Oscar Wilde, the famous Victorian writer and wit.

“There are two kinds of deafness. One is due to wax and is curable; the other is not due to wax and is not curable.” 

Ear Trumpets 

Ear trumpets were only for the wealthy. The poor had to simply go without, as there was no provision for the care of the deaf at all. Johann Maelzel, the sometimes credited inventor of the metronome, made many attempts at creating a quality ear trumpet for Beethoven. In gratitude and recognition, Beethoven wrote music imitating the tick of the musical timing device in the inventor’s honor. Sadly, none of the trumpets really helped the composer.

The Acoustic Chair

Speaking tubes differed from trumpets because of a flexible tube. This was thought to help get closer to the person speaking. The most interesting variation on the speaking tube has to be the Acoustic Chair.

The example pictured, from the BBC,  has to be the most deluxe version ever made. It was created for the deaf King Goa of Portugal by maker Frederic C. Rein in 1819. The arms of the throne terminate in open lions’ mouths. Courtiers had to kneel and speak directly into these while the king listened intently to his tube.

 

Discreet Devices

Rein went on to make the first commercially available hearing aid – a collapsible ear trumpet. He then set about making the devices more aesthetically pleasing by placing them on headbands which could be covered by hair. In terms of hiding and camouflaging aids, devices were made in a variety of styles. These could be attached to binoculars, spectacles, and even lorgnettes. There were even crescent shaped aids with a receptor hidden under the chin and earpieces running up to the ears. This was intended to be covered by a beard and hair and for the Victorian gentleman. The walking cane with a semi-hidden receptor in the handle was another option.

The lady had the the Acoustic Bonnet, made of pretty lace and feathers. Concealed beneath the finery were disguised ear tubes. Acoustic Fans were similar; they looked and operated just like a conventional fan. Concealed at one end, it had the all important ear tube. The fan was in reality a king of the working fan/receptor.

Bone-Conductive Devices

It should be noted as part of the history of hearing aids, that there was even an attempt to make hearing trumpets in the shape of animal’s ears. The thinking behind this was that certain animals have naturally large ears, like rabbits. They thought this could aid in reproducing sound.

Bone-conductive devices also have a long history. These work on the principle that sound energy causes thin hard materials to vibrate. These vibrations can be conducted by a device via the teeth or skull to the ear. The vibrated teeth or bones sent fluid waves in the inner ear and bypassed the middle ear, often the cause of trouble.

Electrical Amplification

Dr. Ferdinand Alt of Vienna applied for the first patent for an electrical amplification device for the deaf in 1900. Within a year or two, the first commercial production of hearing aid devices followed. Alexander Graham Bell, the creator of the first practical working telephone, also turned his more than capable hands to the invention of aids for the deaf. His mother was deaf. As early as 1872, he had designed a transmitter, receiver, and battery system for her. Bell later designed a more powerful version for his own wife. 

Early 1900’s

The period between 1900 and the 1920’s was vital to future production. First was the invention of the Carbon Microphone. It involved two plates separated by carbon granules. Movement of the carbon acted to amplify weak signals.

This was followed by the invention of the Vacuum Tube. This 1920’s invention worked in a unique way. The tube consisted of a cathode and an anode. A cathode is a filament from which heat escapes. An anode captures the escaped heat. Lee Deforest added a grid between the two, which allowed for a controlled electron flow. The result was amplification.

Transistors

By the 1950’s, transistors had been introduced. They were more stable than the vacuum tubes, with no filaments and no need for a battery. The transistor also paved the way for the first smaller aids to be created. Some models even boasted a radio reception as an optional add-on.

It was during the ’50s that the standard classic appearance of the modern hearing aid came into being. The first behind the ear aid (BTE) was created.  Earmolds and a battery were included. For a great many people, this style of miniature hearing aid was out of reach, as it was very expensive. The standard version was about the size of a pocket radio with an earpiece on a wire. Hearing aids continued in this form well into the 1980’s.

Modern Devices

The modern versions may look a little like their older cousins, but modern technology has changed. For one thing, you won’t find large cumbersome hearing aids today. Modern aids are extremely small and lightweight, easily concealed, and vey reliable. Many, such as the Phonak Paradise hearing aids, are able to connect to BlueTooth technology, have built-in rechargeable batteries and have excellent hearing technology.  

The standard modern hearing aid has a microphone, an amplifier to boost the sound volume, and a receiver to deliver the sound to the ear canal.

Read more: Hearing aids

And there you have it, a brief history of hearing aids. Thank goodness we’ve come a long way since the Acoustic Chair!

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Author Details
Phonak hEARo, Phil is an author, journalist and therapist, living on the beautiful North Yorkshire coast with his wife Raine and their three children. Phil was diagnosed in 2016 with mild to moderate Sensorineural hearing loss in both ears and tinnitus. He uses Phonak silver digital hearing aids with automatic volume controls.
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Phonak hEARo, Phil is an author, journalist and therapist, living on the beautiful North Yorkshire coast with his wife Raine and their three children. Phil was diagnosed in 2016 with mild to moderate Sensorineural hearing loss in both ears and tinnitus. He uses Phonak silver digital hearing aids with automatic volume controls.
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