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Hearing Aids > History

The earliest hearing device could best be described as an "ear trumpet". This was a funnel-like apparatus that looked like a trumpet. It was held by the user in such a way that its narrow opening at the base was placed into the ear and the wide opening at the mouth was angled toward the source of the sound. Such ear trumpets could be made of wood or metal, or fashioned from seashells and animal horns.

Although ear trumpets offered some relief for the hearing impaired, they were uncomfortable to carry, clumsy to use and, for many, rather embarrassing in public. The royalty of the time was particularly keen on a more discreet solution that could allow them to hear better without having to compromise image or sacrifice decorum.

In the early 1800s, it was discovered that a throne could be modified with built-in openings in the front which connected via tubes to resonating chambers in the rear. The result was, in essence, an armchair-based sound amplification system. Monarchs who suffered from hearing loss, or who wanting greater spatial separation between themselves and their supplicants, began to use such throne designs throughout Europe.

Although they may have worked for the European kings, thrones were not a practical solution for the rest of the population. To address this disparity, several enterprising manufacturers created ear trumpets that were lighter, smaller, and more discreet. In addition, it became common among older people suffering from hearing loss to use specialized tubes of which one end would be held to the speaker's mouth and the other to the listener's ear.

The major shift in hearing aid technology which set it on the course toward modern devices happened at the dawn of the 20th century and was precipitated by the advent of electricity. The first electric hearing aids were table top models with a large microphone, a heavy processing unit, and an enormous battery box. These unwieldy devices were beyond the means of most people, as they cost triple what the average person made in a year of work. Moreover, the devices functioned poorly and the enormous batteries had to be replaced every couple of hours.

Over the next several decades, hearing aids became progressively smaller and batteries more powerful. However, progress was slow. By the 1930s, the top-of-the-line hearing aid consisted of a large, visible microphone, a boxy processing unit, and a battery pack that had to be carried in a pouch, only providing enough power for a single day of usage at a time. The apparatus was finally compact enough to be carried around, but it was so unwieldy that it made the user feel like a clown at a black-tie event.

On-going improvements in battery sizing, coupled with the invention of the transistor in the 1940s, revolutionized hearing aids by allowing a design that was at long last sufficiently small as to be worn underneath clothing, with only the earpiece visible to an outside observer. As mass manufacturing methods were applied, hearing aids shrunk not only in size but also in price. By the 1950s, individuals suffering from hearing loss finally had access to hearing aids that were both discreet and affordable. Some designs had the earpiece attached to a pair of glasses, making the user’s impairment even less apparent.

In the 1960s, the earliest BTE (behind-the-ear) and OTE (over-the-ear) units were created, housing the battery, transistor, and microphone in a single unit. These devices were much more comfortable to wear and easier to maneuver. In addition, these standalone units made it possible for individuals with longer hair to hide the fact that they were using a hearing aid entirely.

Technological progress continued in the 1970s. On-going efforts at miniaturization gave rise to the first ITC (in-the-canal) hearing aids, while improvements in circuitry made it easier for users to distinguish speech from background noise. The first directional microphones were built into hearing aids, allowing users to focus on particular sound sources rather than having all of the noise around them amplified in the same way.

In the 1980s and 1990s, analog hearing aids gave way to digital devices which used computer chips to process sound information, allowing for much greater analytical complexity and supporting an ever widening set of capabilities. Hearing aids could now be programmed and their functioning could be adjusted in real time by the user. Even as they grew more powerful, hearing aids continued to shrink in size, becoming less and less conspicuous.

In the 2000s, hearing aids acquired wireless capabilities, allowing users to connect to a broad range of other technologies and directly download audio information. The smallest designs yet were created with RIC (receiver-in-the-canal), CIC (completely-in-the-canal), and IIC (invisible-in-the-canal) models. Meanwhile, the technology became increasingly affordable as many leading manufacturers created separate product lines for budget-conscious consumers. In addition, specialized hearing aids were manufactured for unique audiences, such as athletes and children.

Hearing aids have come a long way from the ear trumpets of a hundred years ago. Technology has transformed these devices from embarrassing and ineffective contraptions for the wealthy to discreet and practical solutions for the majority who suffer from hearing loss.

This a historical overview of the evolution of hearing aids - we present accompanying illustrations below. Please also explore other topics available on our site. In the meantime, if this information has been helpful to you, we would greatly appreciate it if you would support us by recommending our site to other users on Google. You can do so by simply clicking this button:

Take a look at the history of hearing aids in picture below and notice the progression from the 18th century to the present in terms of both the shape and size of the available technology.

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