As with anything in life, knowing where we come from can show us where we are going—the same is true with the history of the hearing aid. Understanding the history of the hearing aid shows us the progressive nature of technology, allowing us to take educated guesses at where hearing aids will be going in the future as technology and science continue to advance. In turn, this allows us to choose the most compatible hearing aids today, picking a model that is neither outdated nor headed in the opposite direction technology is.
The History of the Hearing Aid—Animal Beginnings
The history of the hearing aid first starts thousands of years ago. While it’s unclear exactly how long modern man has been using a device specified as a “hearing aid,” the first official publication of hearing aids occurred in 1588 in Giovanni Battista Porta’s book, Natural Magick. In it, Porta writes about carved wooden hearing aids that were formed after animals that had remarkable hearing (such as dogs, deer, etc.).
Of course, it’s easy to imagine that people held their hands cupped to their ears to hear better before this, but as far as the official history of the hearing aid, Porta claims the crown as the first person to mention it.
The History of the Hearing Aid—Sound the Trumpets
As the 1600s and 1700s rolled in, so did innovations to the hearing aid. The most popular style was called a trumpet. This was simply a device that was wider on one end to pick up as much sound as possible, and then narrow on the other to “funnel” that sound directly into the ear—Ludwig Von Beethoven made the trumpet hearing aid extremely popular. During the early years of the trumpet, animal horns and sea shells were used to make the hearing aids. Then, as people realised shapes other than these “natural” ones worked better, hearing aid trumpets were fashioned out of glass, then copper and brass.
During this same time period, it was discovered that sound vibrations could be transmitted through the skull, directly to the brain. This was called “bone conduction” and resulted in tiny fan-like devices being placed directly behind the ears. These “fans” would gather all of the sound waves and vibrations from the air and transmit them directly into the ear through the small bones around the back of the ear. Thus, the first hands-free “ear piece” hearing aid was born.
The History of Hearing Aids—Vanity Takes Over
As soon as it was realised that hearing aids could be concealed behind the ear, it seems that the industry took a sharp turn that way. Though they were still extremely large by today’s standards, the first thought was to make them a part of fashion. Hearing aids were combined with collars, hairdo’s, beards, hats, clothes and just about anything else it could be integrated into—royalty even had them implanted right into the thrones they sat upon! The colour was also a big part of the camouflage, most often being matched to the wearer’s flesh tone or hair colour.
The History of the Hearing Aid—Electrifying the Sound
A lesser used application was also invented in the 1800s which was extremely effective, but not too practical—the ear tube. Held directly to the speaker’s mouth, the tube ran right into the ear of the impaired. This worked brilliantly, but was completely impractical. It wasn’t until Alexander Graham Bell started working on the telephone that this technology paired up with electricity to give us the more modern version of the hearing aid we know today.
The first electronically amplified hearing aid was simply a battery and carbon microphone worn around the neck. This was extremely clunky and unattractive—not to mention the batteries were huge. Of course, that didn’t last very long as the computer-age was soon to be ushered in—the age where everything got smaller, including batteries. And as soon as the transistor was invented in the 1950s, the modern hearing aid was born.
Essentially, a transistor allows you to turn something on and off. If you combine multiple transistors, you get multiple functions which allowed hearing aids to function near the capacity they do today by the late 1950s. The next step was to shrink the transistors down by making them out of silicon which allowed them to be worn behind the ear, then in the shell of the ear, and finally, in the inner ear canal.
The History of the Hearing Aid—Digital Revolution
As technology progressed into the Digital Age, hearing aids adapted, using digital circuitry for the amplification of sound. This also allowed for noise reduction and filtering, offering users a clearer, more pure sound. Eventually, this technology led to targeted amplification, which is where we are today: you can amplify the sounds that you want to hear while turning down the outside noise. Two great examples of this are the Phonak hearing aids and Widex hearing aids.
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