Today, millions of people make use of hearing aids on a daily basis in order to hear better. This is nothing new, although the technology has definitely evolved quite a bit. Offered in a variety 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 manageable these days, but they provide the user plenty more advantages, such as the capability to link up to Bluetooth and even clean out background noise. Here we present a short history of hearing aids and just how far they have come.
Way back in the 17th century, something termed the ear trumpet was invented. ear trumpets were most helpful to those who only had partial hearing problems. They were large, awkward and only worked to amplify sound in the immediate environment. Envision an old phonograph with the conical sphere and you’ll understand what they looked like. They were more commonplace as the calendar ticked over to the 18th century, with a range of models made for the very wealthy, such as the Reynolds Trumpet custom made for the notable painter Joshua Reynolds. This horn-shaped instrument basically just funneled sound into the inner ear.
The hearing instruments of the 17th and 18th centuries supplied only limited amplification qualities. When the 19th century rolled around, more possibilities appeared with electrical technologies. In fact, it was the development of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 that established the advancement leading to electrical transmission of speech. Stimulated by this invention, Thomas Edison invented the carbon transmitter for the telephone in 1878 which improved upon the basics of the telephone and actually boosted the electrical signal to greatly enhance hearing.
Next in line were vacuum tubes, put out by Western Electric Co., in New York City in 1920. This company improved upon the technology inherent in Lee De Forest’s development of the three-component tube just a few years earlier. These devices provided not only improved amplification but also improved frequency. The early models were quite large, but the size got pared down to the size of a small box attached to a receiver not many years later. It was still pretty inconvenient and didn’t offer the versatility and comfort of the hearing aids to come.
First Wearable Products
The first hearing aids that could actually be put on semi-comfortably were constructed by a Chicago electronics manufacturer in the late 1930s. The hearing aids featured a thin wire hooked up to an earpiece and receiver, along with a battery pack that connected to the user’s leg. More portable models became available during World War II which posed a more dependable 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 completely digital models hit the market in 1996. By the 21st century, programmable hearing aids were all the craze, making it possible for expanded 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?