When it comes to history, there are three different types of individuals: people who find history to be incredibly fascinating, people who think history is horribly boring, and people who believe history is full of aliens.
The history of hearing aids isn’t full of aliens (sorry not sorry). But the real story is probably pretty strange too. Hearing loss is, after all, a human challenge that has been here as long as we have. Consequently, people have been exploring clever ways to deal with hearing loss for hundreds of years, if not longer.
Knowing the history of your hearing aids can give you a greater appreciation of how your own little, digital devices work, and why you should wear them more frequently.
Hearing loss has been around for thousands of years
Evidence of hearing loss dating back to the very start of human existence has been found by archaeologists. Fossil evidence shows indicators of ear pathologies. It’s pretty cool! Civilizations such as the Egyptians and even older groups were reporting hearing loss for as long as writing has existed.
So, clearly, hearing loss is nothing new. And it’s likely always sort of awful (especially when left untreated). Communication will be much more difficult if you have untreated hearing loss. Friends and loved ones may become more distant. When humans were a little more primitive, untreated hearing loss could lead to a shorter lifespan as they may not have been capable of detecting danger.
Humans, thus, have had a great incentive to deal with hearing loss going back thousands of years. And they didn’t completely fail at this.
The progression of hearing aid like devices
The first thing to appreciate is that our history of hearing aids is not complete. Throughout time, some of the developments in hearing aid technology were simply not documented. It’s very likely that ancient humans did something to relieve hearing loss, even if there’s no direct evidence of what that was.
Still, here’s what the recognized “hearing aid timeline” looks like:
- 1200s: Animal Horns: Some of the earliest known proto-hearing aids were hollowed-out animal horns. People probably used this device to amplify sound and reduce the effect of hearing loss and evidence of this type of device goes back to the 1200s. The idea was that the funnel-shape of a hollowed out animal bone would help move sound more directly into the ear. There was no amplification used, so these animal horns weren’t working on the same level as a modern hearing aid (obviously). But they most likely help focus the sound you want to hear and control distracting external sounds.
- 1600s: Ear Trumpet: The “cone shaped” hearing aid was the predominant form for centuries. These “ear trumpets” continued to be a favored way to manage hearing loss through the seventeenth century. They were known as “ear trumpets” because, well, that’s what they looked like. The small end would go inside your ear. You could find them made out of a wide array of materials (and with a surprising variety of shapes). At first, they were large and burdensome. Eventually, creative individuals developed smaller, more collapsible versions of these ear trumpets, so people could take them on the go. Since there was still no amplification, they were roughly as effective as the bigger versions. But they were able to channel sounds into your ear, and direct sound more intentionally toward you.
- 1900s: Electronic Amplification: Okay, here we go: the development of the carbon microphone (okay, the carbon microphone was actually invented in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t really employed for hearing aids until later). This should start amplifying and make hearing aids a shoo-in for effectiveness, right? Not really. In the early 1900s, these devices were giant, and not really wearable. The root concept was there, but the technology wasn’t fine-tuned enough to be truly practical.
- 1920s: Wearable Hearing Devices: Then came vacuum tubes! The same technology that powered those old, incredibly bulky television sets was actually state-of-the-art, at that time! These vacuum tubes permitted (relatively) smaller, wearable hearing aids to be made, the size of a backpack. Slightly clearer sound and better amplification were also feasible.
- 1940s: Pocket-Sized Hearing Aids: From fitting a hearing aid in a backpack to being capable of putting one in your purse or pocket, it’s a giant leap! The same impact was now possible with less cumbersome technology as a result of the development of the transistor. It became a substantial advantage, as a result of this technology, to take your hearing aid with you wherever you went.
- 1970s and 1980s: Hearing Aids Get Smaller: As technologies improved, hearing aids got smaller. Hearing aids got considerably smaller in the 1970s and 80s. This made them easier to use, and more popular. Unfortunately, the actual amplification was still fairly basic. These hearing aids essentially just made everything louder. It was better than nothing, but still not really what most people needed to successfully treat their hearing loss.
- 1982: Digital Hearing Aid: While not fully adopted and commercially available until 1996, 1982 was the year of the first digital hearing aid. Digital hearing aids were a game changer, they offered a better quality of sound, more ways to personalize amplification, and the ability to put everything into a more discrete case. With the advent of digital hearing aids, treatment for hearing loss became much more robust and successful.
- 2000s (and Beyond): Hearing Aids Get Wireless and Smart: Since the launching of the digital hearing aid, manufacturers have been able to stack more and more technology into these tiny devices. This started out with Bluetooth wireless connectivity. These days, modern hearing aids will help you hear better than ever by using machine learning algorithms. Hearing aids are more convenient and more effective due to this integration with other technologies.
History’s most advanced hearing aids
Humanity has been working on and bettering hearing loss for centuries, if not longer.
Contemporary hearing aids can attain that better than at any time in human history. And because they’re so effective, these little devices are also more popular than ever before. They can help with a wider range of hearing issues.
So if you want to get back to connecting with your kids or your family or the cashier at the supermarket, hearing aids can help you do it. (See? No aliens involved.)
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