A Brief History of Hearing Aids

Today, countless individuals utilize hearing aids daily so that they can hear better. This is nothing new, even though the technology has unquestionably evolved quite a bit. Readily available in a large number of shapes, sizes, and even colors, the hearing aids of today weigh only a fraction of what they used to. They’re not only more versatile these days, but they give the user several more advantages, such as the ability to hook up to Bluetooth and even filter out background noise. Here we present a concise history of hearing aids and how far they have come.

Initial Innovations

Way back in the 17th century, something referred to 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. Visualize an old-time 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 various variants constructed for the very wealthy, such as the Reynolds Trumpet tailor made for the famous painter Joshua Reynolds. This horn-shaped instrument quite simply just funneled sound into the inner ear.

New Possibilities

The hearing instruments of the 17th and 18th centuries supplied only limited amplification qualities. When the 19th century rolled around, more opportunities appeared with electrical technologies. In fact, it was the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 that introduced 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 improve hearing.

Vacuum Tubes

Next up were vacuum tubes, produced by Western Electric Co., in New York City in 1920. This company built upon the technology found in Lee De Forest’s development of the three-component tube just a couple of years earlier. These devices supplied not only better amplification but also better frequency. The early models were quite big, but the size was reduced to the size of a small box attached to a receiver not many years later. It was still rather inconvenient and didn’t offer the versatility and convenience of the hearing aids to come.

First Wearable Products

The first devices that could actually be put on semi-comfortably were manufactured 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 clipped to the user’s leg. More portable models were introduced during World War II which posed a more secure service to the user thanks to printed circuit boards.

Modern Models

Behind-the-ear models became available 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 21st century, programmable hearing aids were all the craze, providing for extended versatility, customization and comfort. Today, 90 percent of all hearing aids are digital, and that number is only expected to grow.


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