These days, millions of people wear hearing aids on a daily basis so that they can hear better. This hasn’t changed, although the technology has unquestionably advanced significantly. Offered 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 versatile these days, but they provide the user several more advantages, such as the capability to link up to Bluetooth and even filter out background noise. Here we offer a concise history of hearing aids and just how far they have come.
Back in the 17th century, something termed the ear trumpet was developed. These were most helpful to those who only had partial hearing problems. They were bulky, cumbersome and only functioned to amplify sound in the immediate environment. Picture 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 many different versions developed for the very wealthy, such as the Reynolds Trumpet especially designed for the famous painter Joshua Reynolds. This horn-shaped device basically just funneled sound into the inner ear.
The hearing instruments of the 17th and 18th centuries provided only very little amplification benefits. 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 produced the advancement leading to electrical transmission of speech. Spurred 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 augment 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 development of the three-component tube just a couple of years earlier. These devices offered not only better amplification but also better frequency. The early models were quite large, but the size got pared down not many years later to the size of a small box attached to a receiver. It was still rather 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 used semi-comfortably were built by a Chicago electronics manufacturer in the late 1930s. It featured a thin wire hooked up to an earpiece and receiver, together with a battery pack that connected to the user’s leg. More portable models came out during World War II which provided a more reliable service to the user thanks to printed circuit boards.
Behind-the-ear hearing aids 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 new millennium, programmable hearing aids were all the craze, making it possible for increased flexibility, personalization and comfort. Today, 90 percent of all hearing aids are digital, and that number is only expected to grow. The question is, what will the future bring?