A Brief History of Hearing Aid

 A Brief History of Hearing Aids

Humanity had to deal with hearing loss for centuries, and for the longest time, it was commonly accepted that there’s nothing much to do about it. There were simple tools available that could help those with hearing impairments. However, these weren’t as complex and detailed as what we have today. 

The development of listening devices was slow but steady. From simple ear trumpets to modern hearing aids, here is a brief summary of the history and development of listening devices through the years.

Ear Trumpets: The First Listening Devices

About as early as the 13th century, there were already tools called ear trumpets to help people with hearing loss. They are funnel-shaped and come in a variety of sizes. Earlier ear trumpets were made from the horns of cows and other animals. Later on, sheet metal was used to construct these hearing devices.

In 1800, Frederick C. Rein was able to commercially produce collapsible ear trumpets. Besides making ear trumpets more portable, he also added acoustic headbands to the trumpets. They were used to hold the ear trumpets and hide them within the user’s hair.

Ear trumpets weren’t designed to amplify sounds. Instead, they collected sounds and funneled them through a narrow tube and into the user’s ear. Needless to say, they weren’t efficient in dealing with hearing loss. However, these devices were the only options around at the time.

Akouphones: The Genesis of Hearing Aids

Not much has changed until the late 19th century. With the invention of the microphone and the telephone in 1876, it has become possible to control the loudness, distortion, and frequency of sounds.

In 1898, an American named Miller Reese Hutchison launched the Akouphone, the world’s first electric hearing aid. It was the first major development in the history of hearing devices. Based on the technology of the first microphone and telephone, the Akouphone used a carbon transmitter to amplify weak signals through electric currents.

Even though the Akouphone was portable, it was still bulky and cumbersome. It also wasn’t produced for everyone. With a price tag of $400 at the time, not everyone could afford the device. Hutchison kept improving his invention. And by 1902, he was able to release a newer version called the “acousticon,” a more portable version of the original device.

Vacuums and Transistors: More 20th Century Developments

By the 1920s, developments in hearing aid technology led to the creation of vacuum-tube hearing aids. A naval engineer named Earl C. Hanson had patented his vacuum-tube hearing aid design in 1920. The design was made during his time in the Navy in World War I as a way to spy on German troops in the trenches. A year after he got his patent, the Vactuphone was released on the market.

The Vactuphone was distributed by The Globe Ear-Phone Co. and was sold for $135. Like the Akouphone and acousticon before it, the Vactuphone was still bulky and required a lot of batteries to work. 

The next step in hearing aid evolution came in the late 1940s to early 1950s. Transistors were invented in 1947 to replace vacuum tubes in devices. They could amplify and control electric signals better and wouldn’t heat up as drastically as vacuum tubes. 

On top of that, they did not require a lot of battery power, allowing the devices to become smaller. Because of these perks, when transistor hearing aids hit the market in 1951, they were much smaller than their predecessors. 

Microprocessors: From Analog to Digital

However, transistors were gradually replaced when the microprocessor was invented in 1971. Microprocessors allowed electronic devices to become smaller than ever before. Hearing aids made during this period were more powerful than their predecessors and combined both analog and digital circuitry in their components. 

The world’s first commercially successful and fully digital hearing aids were released in 1996 by a company called Widex. Their Senso hearing aid can be adjusted digitally and automatically, effectively filtering out any unwanted noise. It was also fitted to the needs of the user by their audiologist. In just six months, Widex was able to sell 100,000 units.

Customizability: The Future of Hearing Aids

By the turn of the millennium, hearing aids have become completely customizable depending on the user’s needs. Soon enough, in the 2010s, hearing aids came with Bluetooth connectivity, allowing users to connect their devices to other gadgets, like phones and music players. 

Modern hearing aids have a wide range of different quirks and features. These include better wind noise reduction, a directional microphone, and rechargeable batteries that can last for a very long time.

Listening devices have come a long way. It’s safe to say that there will be more drastic developments that can happen in the future.

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