It is said that time marches on and one thing is certain: hearing loss marches right along with it. The recorded history of hearing loss goes back hundreds of years and attempts to correct hearing loss have been in existence since the very first person to cup their hand behind their ear.
The good news is hearing aids and other assistive listening devices have come a long way since the first rudimentary attempts at improving hearing. Hearing aid technology is still evolving and it is exciting to see what the future will hold.
13th century to 19th century
As early as the 13th century, those with hearing loss were using hollowed-out horns of animals such as cows and rams as primitive hearing devices. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the more “modern” ear trumpet was invented. Funnel-shaped in design, ear trumpets were human’s first attempt at inventing a device for treating hearing loss. They didn’t amplify sound, however, but worked by collecting sound and “funnelling” it through a narrow tube into the ear.
19th century to 20th century
The invention of the telephone combined with the practical application of electricity in the 19th century had a tremendous impact effect on the development of hearing aids and other assistive hearing devices. People with hearing loss quickly realized they could hear a conversation better through the telephone receiver held up to their ear than they could in person. However, Thomas Edison, who experienced hearing loss firsthand, saw room for improvement. In 1870 he invented a carbon transmitter for the telephone which amplified the electrical signal and increased the decibel level by about 15 decibels (dB). Although amplification of about 30 dB is usually necessary to allow those with hearing loss to hear better, the invention of the carbon transmitter for the telephone paved the way for the technology that would eventually be used for modern hearing aids.
Beginning in the 1920s, hearing aids using vacuum tubes were able to increase the sound level by as much as 70 dB. The problem was the size. In the beginning, the devices were very large, about the size of a filing cabinet, so they were not portable. By 1924 the size of vacuum tube hearing aids had been reduced so all of the components could fit in a small wooden box, with a receiver that the user held up to the ear. Despite the improvement, they were still heavy, bulky and conspicuous, and amplified all sound, not just the sounds the user wanted to hear.
Improvements in technology continued in 1938 when Aurex introduced the first truly wearable hearing aids, consisting of an earpiece, wire and receiver that could be clipped to the user’s clothing. Unfortunately, this model also required the use of a battery pack that was strapped to the user’s leg.
Thanks to technology developed during World War II, the late 1940s finally saw the production of hearing aids with circuit boards and button-sized batteries, allowing the batteries, amplifier and microphone to be combined into one portable, pocket-sized unit.
The move to smaller, more discreet hearing aids finally got underway in 1948, when Bell Telephone Laboratories invented the transistor. A transistor is a switch that controls the movement of electrons and thus electricity. New transistor technology not only enabled hearing aids to be made smaller, but they could also finally be worn either completely inside or behind the ear. The new hearing aids were so popular and successful that over 200,000 transistor hearing aids were sold in 1953 alone, eclipsing the sale of vacuum tube hearing aids.
Capitalizing on the new technology, one of the first hearing aids to be worn almost entirely in the ear was invented in the late 1950s by Otarion Electronics. Called the Otarion Listener, the electronics were embedded in the temple pieces of eyeglasses. These “hearing glasses” caught on and versions of the technology were soon introduced by other companies such as Beltone and Sonotone.
Late 20th century
Eventually, hearing aid manufacturers developed the ability to make the transistors out of silicon, enabling hearing aids to shrink even further. Hearing aid technology closer to that which we know today was introduced by Zenith Radio in the 1960s; in these versions, the microphone went in the ear and was connected by a small wire to an amplifier and battery unit that was clipped to the ear. This technology stayed largely the same until the 1980s, upon the introduction of digital signal processing chips to hearing aids. The first fully digital hearing aid was released in 1996.
By the year 2000, hearing aids had the ability to be programmed, allowing for user customization, flexibility and fine-tuning, and by 2005, digital hearing aids represented about 80 percent of the hearing aid market. Digital technology is the same circuitry that is used in cell phones and computers. Today’s hearing aids can be fine-tuned by a hearing care professional and customized to an individual’s hearing needs. They can adapt to different listening environments and be connected to other high-tech devices such as computers, televisions and telephones
Hearing aids have come a long way from the days of ear trumpets, and devices continue to evolve as technology advances. On the market today are products with convenient and impressive features, such as rechargeable hearing aid batteries. Many hearing aids are “smart,” adapting to different listening situations without the intervention of the user. Long-wearing hearing aids, such as Lyric hearing aids, can stay in the wearer’s ear canals for several weeks and are 100% invisible to the naked eye.
If you’re interested in hearing aids and want to learn more about the exciting new hearing aid technology we are here to help! Give us a call on 83318047 and find out today how modern hearing aids can help you improve your quality of life, confidence and hearing ability. Book a FREE appointment to speak to one of our skilled clinicians to see if we can help you upgrade your existing hearing aid, or fit you with hearing aids for the first time. At Hearing Sense we offer FREE 30-day no-obligation trials on all hearing aids.