Today, countless people wear hearing aids on a daily basis to be able to hear better. This has been the case throughout history, although the technology has certainly come a long way. Readily available in several 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 convenient these days, but they give the user many more advantages, such as the capability to hook up to Bluetooth and even filter out background noise. Here we offer a abbreviated history of hearing aids and just how far they have come.
Over 300 years ago in the 17th century, something labeled as the ear trumpet was invented. These were most beneficial to those who only had limited hearing impairments. They were large, awkward and only functioned to amplify sound in the immediate environment. Envision an old-time phonograph with the conical sphere and you’ll understand what they looked like. They were more prevalent as the calendar spilled over to the 18th century, with many varieties constructed for the very wealthy, such as the Reynolds Trumpet custom made for the notable painter Joshua Reynolds. This horn-shaped device in essence just funneled sound into the inner ear.
The hearing devices of the 17th and 18th centuries offered only moderate amplification benefits. When the 19th century arrived, additional opportunities appeared with electrical technologies. In fact, it was the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 that brought on the advancement leading to electrical transmission of speech. Stimulated by this invention, Thomas Edison invented the carbon transmitter for the telephone in 1878 which improved upon the basics of the telephone and actually boosted the electrical signal to improve hearing.
Vacuum tubes were up next, produced by Western Electric Co., in New York City in 1920. This company built upon the technology found in Lee De Forest’s finding of the three-component tube just a few years earlier. These devices provided not only better amplification but also improved frequency. The early models were quite large, but the size got pared down not many years later to the size of a compact box attached to a receiver. It was still pretty inconvenient and didn’t offer the versatility and comfort of the hearing aids to come.
First Wearable Devices
The first hearing aids that could actually be put on semi-comfortably were constructed by a Chicago electronics manufacturer in the late 1930s. It featured a thin wire hooked up to an earpiece and receiver, along with a battery pack which connected to the user’s leg. More lightweight models came out during World War II which presented a more secure 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 completely digital models hit the market in 1996. By the start of th new millennium, programmable hearing aids were all the rage, making it possible for improved versatility, customization and comfort. Today, 90 percent of all hearing aids are digital, and that number is only expected to grow.