Hearing Aids of Yesteryear: Big but not beautiful
“The more things change,” a saying goes, “the more they remain the same.” That may hold true for some things, but, thankfully, not for the hearing aid technology.
See that tiny, high-performance device in your ear? Take comfort in knowing that it is, literally, eons away from the clunky, chunky, awkward, and at times comical – by today’s standards – hearing aids of yesteryear.
Let’s take a look at how the primitive – and not always efficient – listening devices of centuries past evolved into today’s digital wonders.
Blowing their own trumpets
We don’t know for sure how the early humans dealt with hearing loss, but it appears that ear trumpets, made from natural materials such as seashells, wood or hollowed-out horns of various animals, had been used for many centuries.
During the1700s, a somewhat “improved” trumpet made its appearance, along with a speaking tube. Made of tin, brass or hard rubber for the simple folks, and gold or silver for the wealthy, they operated on the same principle: funneling the sound directly into the ear.
Big and clunky, these eyesores were not exactly fashion statements, and the speaker had to shout into the trumpet or the tube in order to be heard, but these rudimentary devices were stepping-stones to more effective and user-friendly hearing aids of today.
The weird and the quirky
Things began to change toward the middle of the 19th century. As the Industrial Revolution transformed the society, strides forward were made in the area of hearing aids as well.
Trumpets were downsized into a device called the “London Dome.” Made from tin (and sometimes elaborately decorated), it was manufactured in different sizes to accommodate varying degrees of hearing loss.
We can’t say that people were not creative in the second half of the 1800s, at least in the area of hearing aids. In order to disguise these otherwise highly visible devices, manufacturers came up with acoustic headbands, chairs, canes, and even beard receptacles.
The headbands can be considered as the earliest “concealed” hearing aid, camouflaging the device within a woman’s hairstyle, which tended to be elaborate enough at that time to hide an entire bird’s nest.
For hearing impaired gentlemen of that era, designers offered several choices. An acoustic chair – or a throne, in case of European royalty – discreetly incorporated a hearing aid in armrests; a sound-transmitting tube was placed on the back of the chair and led to the user’s ear, allowing him to listen “normally.”
Then there was an acoustic cane, with the handle containing a sound collector, transmitting sound to the ear through an earpiece. Ladies used parasols instead of canes, holding them against their shoulders for maximum effect.
However, the ingenuity didn’t stop there. As incredible as it sounds, someone actually invented a beard receptacle. It was basically a “receptor” base that was worn under a beard on the upper part of the chest, conveying sound through a tube to the ear. Talk about a “camouflage” job!
Before the 19th century was over, an ear tube made its appearance. The use of this twisted device was very simple: the speaker talked into one end, while the listener placed the other over the ear. The age of concealment seemed to be over.
Size does matter!
At the dawn of the 20th century, first electrical hearing aids - based on telephone technology invented by Alexander Graham Bell in the late 19th century - were developed.
One improvement was the introduction of vacuum tubes in the early 1920s, which amplified electrical signals much more efficiently. However, these tubes were heavy and difficult to conceal because they were carried in special cases; a cord connected the case to an ear mold. Many older people still remember these cumbersome, body-worn hearing aids.
Towards the middle of the century, however, new advances in microphone and battery technology prompted a trend toward hearing aid miniaturization. That’s when inventions such as Behind the Ear (BTE), In the Ear (ITE), open-fit, and in-the-canal aids started to be available and popular. And, of course, the 21st century is brining us even more advanced hearing technology; for example, wireless connectivity with hearing aids.
So when you marvel at the latest hearing aids with steerable directional microphones, adaptive noise suppression, automatic program switching, feedback cancellation, etc., remember the horns, trumpets, beard receptacles, and other oddities of centuries past, and be thankful that you live in the 21st century!