History of hearing aids
Today’s hearing aids are remarkable devices that help people who are hard of hearing in myriad ways. These devices are part of a rich history of hearing assistance items that dates back several centuries.
According to Beltone, a developer of hearing solutions that has been in business since 1940, hearing aids can be traced all the way back to 1588, when the author Giovanni Battista first mentioned hearing assistance devices in the book, “Natural Magick.”
The devices Battista described were wooden and were carved into the shapes of ears belonging to animals with superior hearing. Whether they worked or not, these rudimentary devices serve as ancestors to the devices people use today.
Many people might recognize the hearing aids used in the 1600s and 1700s. Often referred to as “ear trumpets,” these devices were wide at one end to gather sound and narrow at the other end so amplified sound could be directed into the ear.
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Perhaps the most notable user of ear trumpets was the great composer Ludwig van Beethoven, whose hearing began to deteriorate by the time he reached his late 20s. By the time of his death in 1827, Beethoven was almost completely deaf.
According to the House Providence Hearing Health Centers, the first person to commercially produce ear trumpets was London-based Frederick C. Rein, who began producing the devices in 1800. In 1819, Rein was commissioned to design a special acoustic chair for John VI, the king of Portugal.
By the early 1900s, electricity would change hearing aids forever. Instead of ear trumpets, which shrunk in size over the course of the 1800s, people who were hard of hearing in the early 1900s could now use devices that employed carbon microphones and batteries to electronically amplify sound. These devices, which were worn around the neck, might have been an improvement over ear trumpets, but they were large boxes that contained visible wires. In addition, their batteries typically lasted just a few hours. Miniaturized batteries made these devices considerably less cumbersome.
Hearing aids changed again in the 1950s, when the invention of the transistor, a switch with both on and off settings, increased the functionality of hearing aids. Beltone even notes that transistors, perhaps most widely associated with radios, were used in hearing aids before they were used in radios.
Ultimately, transistors were made of silicon, which allowed manufacturers to shrink them even further, allowing users to wear them behind the ear, in the ear shell and then even within the ear canal.
Digital technology changed hearing aids once again in the late 20th century, making it possible to amplify, reduce, filter and direct sound as needed. This customization made it possible for users to alter their hearing aids depending on where they were at a given time.
Modern hearing aids are often so small that they go unnoticed. But these devices are part of a rich history dating back several centuries.
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