These days, millions of people wear hearing aids every day to be able to hear better. This is nothing new, even though the technology has certainly advanced significantly. Readily available in a large number of shapes, sizes, and even colors, today’s hearing aids only weigh a few ounces when they used to weigh several pounds! They’re not only more manageable these days, but they supply the user several more advantages, such as the capability to hook up to Bluetooth and even separate out background noise. Here we offer a short history of hearing aids and just how far they have come.
Over 300 years ago in the 17th century, something known as the ear trumpet was created. ear trumpets were most effective to those who only had limited hearing problems. They were bulky, awkward and only worked to amplify sound in the immediate environment. Think of an classic phonograph with the conical sphere and you’ll understand what they looked like. They were more common as the calendar spilled over to the 18th century, with many models made for the very wealthy, such as the Reynolds Trumpet especially designed for the famed painter Joshua Reynolds. This horn-shaped instrument basically just funneled sound into the inner ear.
The hearing instruments of the 17th and 18th centuries offered only minimal amplification qualities. When the 19th century rolled around, more possibilities emerged with electrical technologies. In fact, it was the development of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 that created the advancement leading to electrical transmission of speech. Sparked by this invention, Thomas Edison invented the carbon transmitter for the telephone in 1878 which enhanced the basics of the telephone and actually boosted the electrical signal to greatly enhance hearing.
Next in line were vacuum tubes, put out by Western Electric Co., in New York City in 1920. This company built upon the technology inherent in Lee De Forest’s finding of the three-component tube just a few years earlier. These devices delivered not only better amplification but also improved frequency. The early models were quite large, but the size was reduced not many years later to the size of a small box attached to a receiver. It was still very inconvenient and didn’t offer the versatility and convenience of the hearing aids to come.
First Wearable Devices
The first hearing aids that could actually be put on semi-comfortably were designed by a Chicago electronics manufacturer in the late 1930s. It featured a thin wire attached to an earpiece and receiver, along with a battery pack that attached to the user’s leg. More lightweight models were introduced during World War II which posed a more dependable service to the user thanks to printed circuit boards.
Behind-the-ear hearing aids were introduced in 1964 by Zenith Radio; digital signal-processing chips, hybrid analog-digital models, and finally fully digital models entered the market in 1996. By the new millennium, programmable hearing aids were all the craze, allowing for boosted versatility, personalization and comfort. Today, 90 percent of all hearing aids are digital, and that number is only expected to grow.