History of Hearing Aids

Because hearing loss can occur because of hereditary issues, injury, and disease, it is a problem that has always plagued humanity. Hearing affects all aspects of life, so anyone who has experience difficulty hearing has looked for a solution. As early as the 13th century we have evidence of instruments used to help those who were hearing impaired. We will explore the history of hearing aids, and what strides have been made in the hearing aid industry to bring new technologies and capabilities.

Early Hearing Aids

Hollowed out animal horns were some of the first examples we have found of hearing aids. These cow or ram horns were used to amplify sound, but were obviously bulky, inefficient, and there wasn’t much control over the shape or how the sound was amplified. However, these early horns show that the idea of increasing sounds coming into the ear was the basis for hearing aids.

Hearing Aids up to the 19th Century

By the 18th century the horns had been replaced with more modern ear trumpets. These were funnel-shaped and didn’t amplify the sound as much as just funnel it through a narrow tube into the ear. These ear trumpets are what you might see in a cartoon depiction of hearing loss; they were bulky and didn’t really work, leaving their users frustrated and sometimes ridiculed. Collapsible conical ear trumpets were invented, and smaller ear cones were also developed. The first commercial production of hearing aids began in London in 1800 by Frederick C. Rein who sold ear trumpets, hearing fans, and speaking tubes. He was commissioned to design a throne for King John VI of Portugal in 1819 that could assist with hearing, and he constructed a chair that transmitted sounds into the ear of the King. Rein had many different designs over the years: an acoustic headband that concealed the hearing aid in headgear and other hearing aids hidden in couches, clothing, or accessories. Hearing aids were constantly being made smaller, and just like today, the ability for a wearer to discreetly wear them was essential. Sometimes however, this drive led to smaller, but not more efficient hearing aids, and the desire for them to be undetected outweighed their functionality.

Hearing Aids in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

The invention of the telephone and electricity opened a whole new door for hearing aid technology. When people realized they could hear better through a telephone held to their ear than they could in person, it was only a matter of time before hearing aids and electricity combined. Thomas Edison, who experience hearing loss himself, developed a carbon transmitter for the telephone that could increase the decibel level, paving the way for using this in hearing aids. Telephones were able to control the frequency, distortion, and loudness of sounds, and these capabilities were important in making hearing aids resemble what they are today.

Electronic Hearing Aids: The first electric hearing aid was called the Akouphone and was created by Miller Reese Hutchinson at the end of the 19th century. It was portable, with a carbon transmitter that could amplify a sound by using an electric current. These hearing aids were eventually small enough to fit in a purse (not yet small enough to be just in the ear). Siemens was an early leader in manufacturing electronically amplified hearing aids, and their first hearing were the size of a “tall cigar box” with a speaker for the ear.

Vacuum Tube Hearing Aids: There were also hearing aids developed using vacuum-tube technology. In 1920, Naval engineer Earl Hanson patented the Vactuphone that used a telephone transmitter to turn speech into electrical signals that were amplified through the receiver. This hearing aid was considered lightweight, and came in at around seven pounds. These vacuum hearing aids were marketed in both the US and England, and they continued to be improved upon, becoming smaller and lighter. Aurex introduced the first wearable hearing aid in 1938 that had an earpiece, wire, and receiver that could be clipped on.The advances, especially in miniaturization, that came during World War II helped in the development of hearing aids that were continually smaller and more usable.

20th Century Hearing Aids

Bell Telephone Laboratories invented the transistor in 1948, which controls the flow and volume of electricity. This technology was applied to hearing aids and in 1952, Norman Krim, an engineer at Raytheon, created junction transistors for hearing aid companies that allowed hearing aids to be smaller, worn either behind or inside the ear. Over 200,000 transistor hearing aids were sold in 1953, showing how ready people were for wearable help for hearing impairment. In the late 1950s the Ontarion Electronics company created hearing aids embedded in the temples of glasses, and these “hearing glasses” were copied by other hearing aid companies. The problem with these hearing aids was that when the transistors got damp, the hearing aid would only last a few weeks. The popularity of these hearing aids had them distributed before being properly tested, and new coatings and materials such as silicon were used to try to circumvent this problem. But it was really the body temperature of the wearer that led to the moisture problem, and the end of transistor came with the creation of the integrated circuit in 1958.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the development of the mainframe computer, and then the microprocessor. Digital technology was developing, and becoming increasingly able to fit in a smaller and smaller package. High speed digital-array processors advanced hearing aids even further, and minicomputers could process sounds at speeds that were equivalent to real time. The first real digital hearing aid was created at the City University of New York in 1982, and while it was a clunky first attempt, many other variations debuted over the next decade. During the late 20th century, companies like ReSound, Oticon, and Widex came out with increasingly better hearing aid designs, which led to the hearing aid styles we see today.


Hearing Aids Today

Today, while hearing aid technology is continually advancing, we are able to program, customize and fine tune our hearing aids to fit our specific hearing needs. Hearing aids of today automatically adjust for background noise, conversations, and can connect to smartphones for remote access of volume and settings. The hearing aids of today are a far cry from the original ear horns, but the purpose is the same: to provide a solution for hearing impairment. Factory Direct Hearing is proud to carry hearing aids from some of those pioneer companies, and we have the best new hearing aids from Siemens/Signa, Oticon, Widex, and ReSound—at a fraction of the traditional cost! Our process is so easy; you send us your hearing exam and we send your programmed hearing aid directly to your door! Factory Direct Hearing is changing the way that people buy hearing aids, and bringing quality hearing help directly to people’s doors!