The earliest form of the “hearing aid” was one all of us are familiar with, a cupped hand behind the ear. Today hearing aids have evolved to be less noticeable, customizable, automatic and much more helpful.
Traditionally, early aids boosted the effect of the external ear by funneling noise into the ear and blocking noises from behind and to the side. Modern aids simply sit behind or in the ear and now capture, augment and amplify sounds in the environment. To celebrate Audiology Awareness Month, let’s take a look back on how far hearing technology has come and recognize how hearing devices help people all over the world.
Earliest Known Uses
It’s recorded that as early as the 13th century people used animal horns as hearing devices. The 17th century brought the invention of metal “ears” that were fitted over one’s own ears to amplify sounds. Famously used by the likes of Beethoven, ear trumpets were developed in the early 1800s and in the coming decades ear trumpets evolved to the more flexible acoustic horn. These funnel-shaped devices were the world’s first attempt at treating hearing loss.
Early 20th Century
The technology of the 20th century greatly impacted the development of hearing aids. The invention of the telephone and introduction of electricity accelerated the development of more modern aids. Many people discovered they could hear better holding a telephone receiver up to their ear than listening to a live conversation.
In 1913 Siemens brought to market one of the first electronic hearing aids. Devices using vacuum tubes were able to increase sound volume by 70dB with a small speaker fixed into the ear attached to a large box. By the mid 1920s the first portable units were developed, but the weight was still an issue. Even with these advancements, hearing aids were heavy, bulky, and amplified every sound in the users’ environment.
Due to the technological advancements during World War II, hearing aids became smaller and more effective in the second half of the century. Smaller batteries and circuit boards made it possible for the battery, amplifier, and microphone to live together in a small, portable unit.
The invention of the transistor played a huge part in the improvement of hearing technology. Transistors meant you could now start, stop, and control the flow of current, meaning hearing aids could have multiple settings. Miniature microphones with transistors lead to the development of smaller aids that could fit behind and inside the ear.
Over 200,000 transistor hearing devices were sold in 1953 alone.
Late 20th Century
By this time hearing aids generally followed the same format. A microphone was placed in the ear and was connected to an amplifier and battery unit that attached to the ear. This remained the norm until the digital explosion of the late 1980s.
As computer technology exploded in the ‘80s and ‘90s, tiny computer components, and audio-processing technology from CD and DVD players, brought on the age of digital hearing devices. Digital aids could manipulate the incoming sound and target specific frequencies the user had difficulty hearing. Settings on the device could be adjusted for certain environments with noise reduction functions and added customizability.
The Present World of Hearing Aids
By the early 2000s, hearing aids could be customized and programmed for each user’s individual needs. Digital devices are now standard and advancements in cellphone and computer technology have led to smaller aids and new exciting features.
Today’s aids can automatically adapt to different environments and connect to other devices like computers, televisions, and phones. They are hardly visible and are constantly improving in performance and decreasing in size. There is a huge array of hearing aid options in different styles, technology levels, and costs.