Have you ever wondered what people in the past did when they experienced hearing loss? What about hearing loss itself – when was it formally recognized as a medical condition? Today, we are fortunate to have some of the most advanced hearing devices available to us. Modern hearing aids are fast, smart, and sleek – barely noticeable, with the incredible processing powers akin to computers.
In fact, today’s hearing aids
are closely aligned with other fast, wireless, smart electronic devices, such as smartphones and tablets. Likewise, the history of hearing aids has closely followed the advent of mechanization and electric devices in the 19th and 20th centuries. Let’s take a journey back in time through a brief history of hearing aids to see how we arrived where we have today.
Try to imagine a world without electricity. Difficult, right? We spend so much of our time connected to electronic devices. We even rely on electricity for light and heat. For those of us with hearing aids, battery power is crucial to helping us hear. How did people hear before electricity?
For most of the 19th century, leading up to the advent of mechanization and the Industrial Revolution, people who were hard of hearing used the ear trumpet. Ear trumpets are acoustic instruments shaped as a funnel; people held these funnels up to their ears to amplify sounds within their environment. Historical texts show that ear trumpets were not particularly effective in amplifying sound, and were also awkward to use.
Things began to change as the 19th century grew to a close. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, the first device to transmit a human voice over an electric signal to a machine. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers notes that the proximity of the telephone to the ear helped hard of hearing people conduct conversations, and as such, people with hearing loss preferred talking on the telephone to real-life conversations. Not so unlike millennials, right?
Near the turn of the century, in 1898, Miller Reese Hutchison invented the first electric hearing aid, using a carbon transmitter. This device was inspired by the inner workings of the telephone to use a portable carbon transmitter to amplify weak signals. A similar device was invented in Austria, by Frederick Alt. The carbon transmitter hearing aid was heavy and bulky, and according to historical records, only amplified sounds by approximately 15 decibels. These were used mostly for cases of moderate hearing loss.
By 1920, there was a new device on the market: the vacuum tube. First invented in 1907 by Lee De Forest at the Western Electric Company in New York City, the original models were enormous – approximately 100 kilograms in weight and the size of a filing cabinet. They had to be plugged in and amplified all sound within a space, which meant there was no focus on particular voices or noises that the user preferred to hear. By 1924, the vacuum tube had been reduced in size to four kilograms – but users did not take to this device because it was not discreet, or particularly wearable.
The first wearable hearing aid was invented in 1938 by Aurex Corp. These new hearing aids closely resemble hearing aids today: an amplifier-receiver is attached to the wearer’s clothes, while a thin wire connected to an earpiece. The device was powered by a battery pack, that would also have to be strapped onto the wearer. These wearable hearing aids grew in popularity.
Hearing loss became a major subject of medical study following the two World Wars. It’s no surprise then that hearing technology became more advanced as a result. Following World War II, transistor hearing aids became more popular. Though they began as rather bulky, inconvenient boxes to be carried with the wearer, transistor hearing aids shrank in size through the years, to the point where they became wearable and are recognizable today as the standard hearing aid – with receiver (microphone), amplifier, and ear mold. These improved in size and through the years, with new advancements in sound technology, began to provide more natural sound for hearing aid wearers.
Here in 2017, looking back, it might seem astonishing and quaint how our predecessors addressed hearing loss. Digital hearing aids now provide us with instant access to rich, well-balanced sound, incredible features that help us recognize speech and memorize our listening preferences in different locations, and wireless connectivity that allows us to stream our phone calls directly to our ears. Sleek and discreet in design, hearing aids these days almost function like stereo headphones, and with rechargeable battery options, you can move through your life with confident access to sound.
Learn more about the most advanced hearing aids to date! Contact us
at Puget Sound Hearing Aids and Audiology today.