Hearing aids and other assistive listening devices are constantly evolving as technological advances make way for a higher rate of user friendliness and a more natural sense of hearing. Today, more and more people are aware of the endless benefits of hearing aids, but it wasn't always as easy to diagnose and treat hearing loss. The history of hearing loss dates back hundreds of years when those who were hard of hearing were unable to receive proper treatment. Luckily, the times have changed.
The beginning of hearing loss
Ear trumpets were man's first attempt at treating hearing loss in roughly the 1700s. These devices were constructed from hollowed-out horns of animals such as cows and rams. Later, they were made with wood and metal. The devices actually resemble a horn and were very popular in the 1800s. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, these hearing aids were very popular and they were made with a variety of materials in order to find the best possible solution. In fact, Beethoven used various ear trumpets throughout his life, some of which were designed specifically for him. These devices can actually still be found in Europe today, although they will likely better serve as a collector's item than a hearing aid.
During the 18th century, speaking tubes were used to pick up sound close to the source and direct it through a flexible tube to the ear, although these devices were not very practical. Users had to hold the device up to their ear while a speaker talked directly into the tunnel at the end of the device. While speaking tubes were not ideal for large gatherings, they were ideal for two people chatting, and were actually utilized to ensure a private conversation.
First electronic hearing aid
During the early 1900s, the first electronic hearing aids were invented, based on the same principle that Alexander Graham Bell used to develop the telephone. While the first model was created around 1899, it was not patented until 1901. In the 1920s, the use of vacuum tubes made it easier to amplify sound, but devices were still very large. Also known as carbon hearing aids, electronic hearing aids were popular throughout the 1940s. Unfortunately, these devices were only suitable for people with moderate hearing loss or less.
Modern hearing aids
In the 1950s, the invention of the transistor changed the face of hearing aids because they made it possible to develop much smaller devices. A transistor is a simple switch that can turn settings on and off. From this invention, hearing aids could contain multiple transistors, making it possible to have various settings in one device. This was also the turning point for hearing aids to become worn instruments that could fit snugly within the ear canal or behind the ear for the entire day, and not one that had to be toted around.
How smaller batteries changed everything
Even today, some people consider hearing aids to be clunky and very visible, but technology has made it easy to mask hearing aids while in use. Previously, batteries that were used were bulky and large, meaning that the devices themselves were very visible, or users had to have a battery pack on their body. By the 1930s, hearing instruments developed well enough so that they could be portable, allowing users to hear outside of the home.
Hearing aid wearers can take advantage of an array of technological advances today that make hearing normally a reality. For example, hearing with background noise is one of the most difficult things for people with hearing loss, but directional microphones and other features make this much easier. Similarly, t-coils, hearing loops and FM systems allow people with hearing loss to understand normal speech in public settings.
Additionally, hearing aids are much less noticeable than they were in the past. The device fits directly into the users ear for comfort and invisibility. After digital hearing aids became available in 1982, more people had access to hearing aids, although they were still large and expensive. By 1996, the first fully digital behind-the-ear and in-the-ear instruments were made available to the public.
What to expect in the future
Technology of hearing aids is something to look forward to for those with hearing loss. It's expected that hearing aids will continue to decrease in size while increasing in power. It may even be possible for hearing aid wearers to have a small operating system within the device that acts like a computer. This way, a device will be able to adapt itself to certain situations without the user doing anything. It's also likely that hearing aid instruments will decrease in price because technology will be made much more readily available.