The History of the Hearing Aid

Man uses an ear trumpetYou must admit that some of today’s technology advances are very useful. Take hearing aids, for instance. Today’s micro-miniature hearing aids can hide inside the ear canal. A few sightly larger ones with more capabilities hide discreetly behind the ear. Hearing aids worn by our ancestors were not always so discreet.

The earliest known hearing aid, called an ear trumpet, was described by Belgian scientist and high school rector Jean Leurechon in his book Récréations-Mathématiques, in 1624. The book described how to make your own ear trumpet as there were no manufacturers of the device at that time.

hearing_aid_lady_with_hearing_aid-smallerTo the right is an 1860 ninth-plate ambrotype image of a lady holding a tin horn antique hearing aid. Click on the image to view a larger version.

In the late 1800s, Thomas Edison, who was hard of hearing, found that he could not use Alexander Graham Bell’s new invention, called the telephone. The fact that he could not hear sounds from the telephone spurred his interest in improving it. This led to his 1878 invention of the carbon microphone for telephones, which, unlike Bell’s device, amplified the electrical signal.

In 1907, Lee De Forest of the Western Electric Company invented the first vacuum tubes, and the electronic amplification of sounds became possible. However, the company’s first “hearing aid” in 1920 was anything but portable: it weighed 220 pounds and was the size of a filing cabinet. That hearing aid was best used when placed beside the user’s living room easy chair; from his or her chair the user would hold a single earphone that looked like an old-fashioned telephone receiver. (Headphones were not invented until a few years later). For many wealthy deaf users, this was the first time in years they could participate in family conversations.

Telex hearing aid of 1936

Telex hearing aid of 1936

In 1938, the Aurex Corporation developed the first wearable hearing aid. A thin wire was connected to a small earpiece and then to an amplifier-receiver that clipped to the wearer’s clothes. The receiver was wired to a battery pack, which strapped to the leg.

DeForest Universal Audiophone, 1938

DeForest Universal Audiophone, 1938

A hearing aid of 1942

A hearing aid of 1942

By the early 1950s, hearing aids had been “miniaturized” to fit into a man’s shirt pocket. I well remember my uncle wearing one of these. It contained miniature vacuum tubes, and it consumed expensive batteries quickly. My uncle reported that he was frequently bothered by the rustling sound of his clothing as amplified by the hearing aid. Then he would smile and also comment that the hearing aid also was a great excuse for not listening to his wife. “I don’t know, Honey, I think the battery died.”

By 1957, hearing aids were small enough to fit into eyeglass frames. Lee De Forest himself, by then 84 years old and hard of hearing, appeared in ads in 1957 endorsing the product, saying, “It overcomes all of the objections I previously had to wearing a hearing aid.”

eyeglasses-with-hearing-aid

tiny-hearing-aidOf course, miniaturization continued. Even better, digital processing of the audio appeared by the late 1980s, and the problems of background noise were reduced. Today people suffering from hearing loss have many tiny solutions to choose from. If only Grandpa had one of these available when he needed it.

For more information, read Hearing Aids and the History of Electronics Miniaturization [IEEE Annals for the History of Computing, 2011, Volume 33] by Mara Mills at http://goo.gl/2JXHi1.

W.C. Fields speaks into an old man's hearing trumpet. Movie still. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

W.C. Fields speaks into an old man’s hearing trumpet. Movie still. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

6 Comments

One of my classmates had one of those hearing aids that slip inside a shirt pocket. It used to pick up the signal from the local top 40 radio station in the classroom. He would turn up the volume so we could all listen to all the latest hits while taking a test. The lady from whom I took piano lessons had an electric organ that also used to sometimes pick up this same radio station. You have not lived until you’ve heard a Bach & Bacharach duet.

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I have had hearing aids since 1995, starting with one that only amplified sound. Then about 2000 I got two of the “completely in the canal” aids that were “tuned” to fit my hearing loss. They worked great until the small plastic piece that enabled them to be pulled out failed. They were replaced with two “behind the ear” types that worked well until I became sensitive to earwax buildup. Now I can only wear them for a few hours each day. Any more and I get a wax buildup that is difficult to remove. Maybe I need a trumpet like the woman in the picture. Does anyone sell them anymore?

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Interesting. I wouldn’t like to carry my hearing aids around in my pocket–or to have to buy shirts with pockets in the first place! Another stage, for some people with particular kinds of deafness, is a cochlear implant, where the “hearing aid” is surgically implanted. My impression is that there are two parts, one in the cochlea, part of the inner ear, and the other on the surface of the skull just behind the ear. The implant has to be “tuned” to pick up voices properly. I knew a man who was hoping to hear more than just noise for the first time in decades. They tuned it for his wife’s voice, that being the most important to him. Unfortunately, even with fine tuning, the only other person who came in clearly was me! Our voices must have been very similar. I’ve known other people, however, for whom this is a highly successful solution when “normal” hearing aids of any type haven’t helped.

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Dick, for the latest in hearing age technology, check out http://www.resound.com
These things now have Bluetooth technology for streaming music, and are controlled by an app on your smartphone!!!

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    Thanks for the info. Actually, I tried a pair of Resound Linx 7 hearing aids overnight a couple of months ago. They contain impressive technology and a very high price tag. I found my hearing wasn’t as bad as the audiologist had said so I returned them.

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