From Trumpets to Digitalization: A History of Hearing Aids

BY CONNOR KILKELLY  |  FEB 2, 2018

Hearing aids have been knocking about in ludicrous, hilarious and genuinely ingenious forms since the early 1700s. Here we’ll examine the top picks for each of these categories, emphasizing some virtually unknown visionaries of the field.


The First Trumpeters


Before the trumpet’s name was tarnished by its first syllable’s affiliation with an exceedingly divisive presidency, it was well regarded as both a brass instrument and for being the inspiration for the first ever hearing aid: The Ear Trumpet.  

Originally these bulky brass hearing devices were crafted by instrument makers for individual clients who experienced partial hearing loss. The ear trumpet was essentially portable, though somewhat like carrying a heavy gramophone around with you where you went - not wholly stylish or convenient, though hipsters today may disagree.  

In 1800 the first commercial manufacturer of the ear trumpet, Frederick C. Rein, had a problem on his hands. Rather than hide the affliction of his hearing impaired clients, the product literally added a trumpet’s fanfare of attention to the fact. As a result, more discrete hearing aid development became Rein’s top priority.   


The King, the Throne and the Listening Lions

King John VI of Portugal commissioned Rein to help in his struggle to hear his counsel – rather than nod along obliviously, out of vanity, and accidentally sanction a war due to his affliction. The result was a chair donned with golden lion heads, who’s gaping roars hid an extended trumpet which led neatly to the top of the throne – allowing the king to hear anyone who stood speaking in front of him with ease.


The chair was nothing short of genius, however, the hearing impaired king market is niche to say the least, so Rein rightfully got to back to work making more practical and commercially viable products for the public at large. His crowning achievement (no pun intended) was a headband he fashioned, known as “Aurolese Phones”, that could be tucked beneath a fringe, leading an acoustic horn to the ear.


Hearing Goes Electric

Rein’s era of ingenious designs relied on acoustic tricks in helping those hard of hearing amplify the sounds around them. With the invention of the telephone and microphone came a whole new way of hearing the world, which was instrumental in hearing aid development. Miller Reese Hutchison (a man so great he has three surnames) created the first electric hearing aid, the Akouphone, in 1898. The Akouphone comprised of a carbon microphone which converted soundwaves into electrical audio signals, turning weak soundwaves into stronger ones; mumbles into audible voices. The device looked like a trucker’s ham radio, which connected to the ear via an unsightly cable - not exactly a vast improvement on Rein’s more subtle designs, but this crucial step paved the way for a new age of hearing.


A World of Advances… Thanks to a World War

From 1898 to 1944 relatively little real progress had been made in the development of hearing aids. A vacuum tube was developed by naval engineer, Earl Hanger, in 1920 which turned speech into electrical signals which were then amplified similarly to Hutchison’s design. Companies such as Siemens improved on Hutchison’s designs and other similar devices where marketed, each attempting to improve upon the previous bulky conception of the hearing aid, and make the devices smaller.  

Change came with a bang (last pun, I promise) due to the vast technological advances which came about during WWII. Yes, the same war that is responsible for genocide, chaos, terror and the a-bomb is also brought to the world considerable scientific and medical advances we take for granted today. Penicillin, the microwave, radio navigation and the computer all owe their creation to desperate scientists, working round the clock in an effort to win the war and avoid utter annihilation while they were at it - really, puts the stress of preparing a work presentation into perspective, doesn’t it? Substantial and rapid progress was made in practically all fields of active research and the hearing aid was no exception. The design became more effective, powerful and miniaturized as a result of the scientific advances of the war… so, eh, hooray? Let’s move swiftly on from the dubious philosophical implications of that sentence and onto the pinnacle age of hearing development.

 

The Digital Ear

Historians accredit Alan Turing, a brilliant British scientist, with shaving as much as a year off WWII due to his work. Turing developed a machine, essentially the first mechanical computer, that helped decipher the coded telegrams of the enemy  - anticipating their attacks unbeknownst to them. Computers changed the world at large, as well as how we hear.   

Bell Telephone Laboratories successfully digitalized speech and audio signals via a mainframe computer at the start of the 1960s. However the process was painstakingly slow, so hope for a digitalized hearing aid was all but non-existent.  

The microprocessor burst onto the scene in the 70s. The six-channel hearing aid, created by Daniel Graupe - no doubt while rocking killer sideburns and flannel trousers - allowed a user to take control of their hearing to a considerable degree for the first time in history. It used amplitude compression to convert audio signals into different frequency bands – making external sounds appear weaker or louder at the user’s command. What was previously thought to be the stuff of sci-fi was now a reality: humans could alter their experience of hearing at the touch of a button.  

The 1980s brought us Blondie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Scarface….as well as Thatcher, Ragan and the celebrity fitness video – so, safe to say, it was a mixed bag. Moreover the emergence of mini-computers allowed sound to be digitalized in real time. This let hearing aids interpret the external sounds of the world and alter the audio accordingly to suit a user’s needs at any given moment. In 1982, City University of New York created a device which operated by transferring radio waves to a computer for the first time. By 1989 a digital hearing aid that fit behind the ear was launched. Widex made the first commercially successful all digital hearing aid in 1996, and so *digitalised trumpet fanfare*, the modern hearing aid was born!   


The future sounds even better


With the advent of digital apps by companies such as Apple and with the first hearing aid App “Listen App” receiving FDA approval, the smartphone’s impact on the word of hearing is not to be underestimated. A single ear bud hanging from your ear can help you hear the external world with ease. What’s more, clients can now choose to download apps like that of Mimi-Hearing-Technologies to both see how their hearing’s holding up, and personalize audio to suit their individual preferences.

Truly we are living in the greatest time for hearing in history. The hearing technologies we are working on today complete the long-time human journey to perfect sound. The only shame: never having the chance to use a lion laden throne equipped with eavesdropping trumpets.