History of Hearing Aids
Published: September 29, 2021
Updated: March 23, 2023
Have you ever wondered what the history of hearing aids entails? Hearing loss has been recorded since the 13th century, and ways to correct this loss have been around ever since. From animal horns and trumpets to almost invisible hearing aids, it certainly can be said that the evolution of hearing aids has come a long way.
Naturally, one of the first ways that humans tried to improve their hearing was to use their hands to cup over their ears, however, with the use of animal horns, this soon changed. In the 13th century, animal horns were hollowed out and used to collect sound signals in the environment and deliver them to the ear. Animal horns were used for many years, but in the 17th century, the hearing trumpet was introduced and was the first hearing device.
The trumpet collected sound from the environment and funneled it through a narrow tube and delivered it into the ear canal. In the 19th century, a lot of work was carried out to make the trumpet horns aesthetically appealing in an attempt to conceal the presence of a hearing device, as there was a stigma associated with hearing loss. The trumpet was, therefore, redesigned to enhance its aesthetics with intricate engravings, paintings, and embossing. During this time, acoustic headbands were invented to disguise the hearing device in the shape of either a simple or irregular-shaped barrel, twisted shell, or fluted funnels in patterns that resembled flowers.
In 1876, the telephone was invented and this was the first device that could transmit speech from a different location. The telephone, along with the practical application of electricity, provided the foundation for an electronic hearing aid. This foundation led to the development of the Akouphone in 1898, the first electronic hearing aid, which used a carbon transmitter that allowed a weak sound signal to be amplified. The Akouphone consisted of a microphone, headphones, and a battery. This hearing device managed to successfully treat mild to moderate hearing loss. It had a disadvantage in that it was big, bulky, and therefore not portable. Additionally, it was expensive so only a few could afford it. Another disadvantage was that because of the carbon transmitter, the device had a limited frequency range and tended to produce a scratchy sound.
The vacuum tube was the next technological breakthrough for hearing aids in the 20th century. The first vacuum tube hearing aid, named Vactuphone, was developed in 1920 and used vacuum tubes and a telephone transmitter to convert speech into electrical signals. They were able to increase the sound signal by 70 dB because vacuum tubes controlled the flow of electricity better than carbon. Although the size of the Vactuphone was small compared to the Akouphone, it was still heavy and bulky.
The first wearable hearing aid was developed in 1938 and consisted of an earpiece that connected to an amplifier receiver that the individual could clip to their clothing. This hearing device required a large battery pack that was usually attached to the user’s leg. In the late 1940s, technological advancements resulted in the production of hearing aids that had circuit boards and button-sized batteries. This advancement allowed the battery, amplifier, and microphone to combine into one portable unit that was the size of a standard pocket. Although this pocket-size hearing device was the smallest of its kind, it was not discreet as the pocket unit was connected to earpieces with wires and still brought on attention from the public.
The transition from a large device to a smaller and more discreet device came along with the development of the transistor. A transistor is an electronic switch that can control the flow of current. The transistor used significantly less power than its vacuum tube counterpart which conserved the battery life. This, in turn, led to the creation of a smaller, longer-lasting, less expensive battery and because of this, the hearing aid was able to reduce its size so that it could fit in the ear or behind the ear.
Initially, hearing aids used analog technology until the introduction of the all-digital hearing aid in 1996. Digital hearing aids can convert an analog signal, process it digitally, and then send an analog signal back into the ear canal. The invention of digital hearing aids allowed the device to be much smaller, have better sound quality, and filter out noise. The amplification also improved as the hearing aid could now more effectively amplify a variety of different sounds and improve the sound quality.
Today, hearing aids are smarter than ever. They can be programmed according to your unique listening needs. They can adapt to your different listening environments and can connect to electronic devices such as cell phones and televisions, via features such as telecoils, Bluetooth, and FM connectivity. These advances mean you can make calls and hear the TV directly through your hearing aid. They are able to suppress any background noise and can eliminate any distracting noise. They are the smallest, and the most powerful hearing aids.
Although hearing aids have come a long way since the trumpets back in the 17th century, the purpose of a hearing device has not changed, which is to improve hearing. From the first electronic hearing device to the advanced digital hearing aids of today, they all consist of three main components: a microphone, amplifier, and a battery. Even though the hardware has roughly stayed the same, the technology and size of the hearing aid have advanced immeasurably.
Today’s hearing aids can make a huge difference in your quality of life. There are many options in terms of models, colors, and sizes that you can choose from nowadays. Make sure to go to your hearing health care professional to get you started on your hearing aid journey. Although hearing aids have advanced over the years, the evolution has not ended, we will have to wait and see what is next in this exciting journey.
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