A Short History of Hearing Aids

Hearing Health Blog

These days, countless people wear hearing aids each day in order to hear better. This is nothing new, although the technology has unquestionably come a long way. Readily available in numerous 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 convenient these days, but they provide the user several more advantages, such as the ability to hook up to Bluetooth and even filter out background noise. Here we present a concise history of hearing aids and how far they have come.

First Developments

Over 300 years ago in the 17th century, something referred to as the ear trumpet was created. These were most effective to those who only had limited hearing loss. They were large, cumbersome and only functioned to amplify sound in the immediate environment. Think of an old phonograph with the conical sphere and you’ll understand what they looked like. They were more popular as the calendar spilled over to the 18th century, with a variety of varieties built for the very wealthy, such as the Reynolds Trumpet tailor made for the famous painter Joshua Reynolds. This horn-shaped instrument basically just funneled sound into the inner ear.

New Possibilities

The hearing devices of the 17th and 18th centuries supplied only minimal amplification benefits. When the 19th century rolled around, additional possibilities materialized with electrical technologies. In fact, it was the development of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 that brought on 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 augment hearing.

Vacuum Tubes

Next up 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 offered not only improved amplification but also improved frequency. The early models were quite big, but the size was reduced to the size of a small box attached to a receiver not many years later. It was still rather inconvenient and didn’t offer the versatility and convenience of the hearing aids to come.

First Wearable Products

The first hearing aids that could actually be put on semi-comfortably were made by a Chicago electronics manufacturer in the late 1930s. It featured a thin wire fastened to an earpiece and receiver, along with a battery pack which connected to the user’s leg. More lightweight models came out during World War II which presented a more dependable service to the user thanks to printed circuit boards.

Modern Versions

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 start of th new millennium, programmable hearing aids were all the rage, allowing for boosted versatility, customization and comfort. Today, 90 percent of all hearing aids are digital, and that number is only expected to grow.


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