A Brief History of Hearing Aids
Today’s amazing hearing devices owe their start to an evolving series of hearing aids that leveraged technology over time.
The first hearing aids, created in the 17th century, were enormous, trumpet-shaped contraptions with a large, open piece at one end that collected sound. The trumpet gradually tapered into a thinner tube that funneled the sound into the ear. While these devices were helpful to some people with hearing loss, the funnels were eventually tapered down to make them portable, which, unfortunately, made them less effective.
The development of the modern hearing aid might not have been possible had it not been for Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, two “renaissance men” who had invented independent devices that together, electronically amplified sound for better hearing in the late 1800s.
The Industrial Revolution ushered in the mass production of many devices, including hearing aids, and created a new middle class that could afford them.
In the 1800s, several companies, including George P. Pilling and Sons, and Kirchner and Wilhelm, developed and sold their own versions of hearing aids.
In 1898, the Dictograph Company introduced the first commercial carbon-type hearing aid. Just one year later, Miller Reese Hutchison, of the Akouphone company, patented the first practical electrical hearing aid, which used a carbon transmitter and battery. Its sale price was $400 – but the advanced device was impractical: it was so large, it had to sit on a table.
In the 1920s, vacuum tubes were used in the manufacture of hearing aids. This made sound amplification more efficient, but oversized batteries still made the devices cumbersome.
In 1952, transistor hearing aids made their long-anticipated debut. The addition of simple on/off switches finally enabled the advent of smaller hearing aids. With a price tag of $229.50, these analog hearing aids, manufactured by Sonotone, were portable and affordable.
The next milestone for hearing devices – the 1990s – brought digital technology to the forefront, improving sound quality and permitting programmability.
A decade later, computer technology enabled the development of smaller hearing aids and more precise, settings to accommodate virtually every type of listening environment. The newest generation of hearing aids can continually adjust themselves to improve sound quality and reduce background noise.