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If you're curious about the evolution and creation of modern hearing aids, here's a history lesson. From animal horns to high-tech digital hearing aids.
2019-09-14

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Hearing Aid History: Who Invented the Hearing Aid?

The electronic hearing aid has a long history, dating back over 100 years. How did we get where we are now, and how will hearing aid technology move forward from here?

Humans have had ears and a sense of hearing since the dawn of our time on Earth. Despite that, we are still learning about how our ears work, and how to cope with hearing loss. Digital technology has changed the field of audiology immensely, allowing us to address people’s hearing loss beyond the limit of what we previously thought possible. However, hearing aid manufacturers are still building on what they have, and studies continue to improve our understanding of our ears and brains.

We can learn from our past and tracing the lineage of hearing aids can give us ideas on how to improve them. Believe it or not, the history of hearing aids is a rich topic, and there’s much to learn about how previous generations took the concept of hearing aid horns and electrified it into something new.

When Were Hearing Aids Invented?

That largely depends on what kind of hearing aids you mean. Hearing aid is a broad term that can include any and all aids used to boost hearing, but it’s recently come to describe a specific device worn in the ears to negate hearing loss. Using the broad definition, the first hearing aids were fashioned from animal horns. However, hearing aids as we know them today have undergone a number of evolutions.

The History of Hearing Aids

Hearing aid horns are the earliest instance of people correcting the effects of hearing loss. While they couldn’t help those with profound or neurological hearing loss, they funneled sounds into the ears and accommodated those with moderate hearing loss. These horns usually came from animals and could be carried on a belt or necklace for easy use. As time went on, these horns were replaced and refashioned into metal hearing trumpets. Until electricity was harnessed, these were the only forms of hearing aids we had.

With the invention of the telephone, electrical hearing aids became a reality. Those with hearing loss reported better conversations with telephones, since the receiver could be held to their ear. Thomas Edison took note of this, as he had hearing loss himself. Using his findings and inventive skills, he created a carbon transmitter, which would form the basis for all carbon hearing aids to come.

However, he wasn’t the only one to think of the electric hearing aid. In 1911, the Esha-Phonophor was created by Louis Weber. While it was intended as a gift for a friend, this hearing aid design became popular, and led to the creation of the hearing aid company Siemens. They went on to improve their designs, becoming a well-known name in the manufacturing of hearing aids.

Next came vacuum tubes, which improved the concept of hearing aids even further. However, these hearing aids were large — the size of filing cabinets. While advancements in technology allowed these parts to be shrunk into a small box, these hearing aids were still bothersome to use. While some of the first portable hearing aids were created, they required large battery packs, and the batteries did not last long.

Before the switch to digital hearing aids went underway, transistors paved the path for more complex hearing aids. This technology allowed hearing aids to become even smaller. This was a wildly popular improvement, boosting the sales of hearing aids immensely and sparking more interest in the creation of more advanced hearing devices.

Transitioning from Analog to Digital

As silicon became the primary material for transistors, hearing aids became even smaller and more flexible. In 1996, hearing aids had progressed to their final form: digital. These digital hearing aids were unlike anything before, and added features as time went on. By the 2000s, hearing aids could be fully customised to fit the wearer, and digital hearing aids came to eclipse 80% of the market, becoming the new norm for most wearers.

Fine-tuning was a feature that manufacturers focused on. When hearing aid wearers were provided with the ability to customise and adjust their hearing experience, they were more likely to enjoy using their hearing aids. This concept influenced much of the improvements moving forward. Nowadays, many aspects of your listening experience can be tailored, and features like telecoil and Bluetooth allow you to connect with other devices.

However, the improvements have not ended. We are living through history every day, and hearing aid history has not slowed down. In fact, the core design of hearing aids is still being adjusted. From their shape to their potential for personalisation, nothing about hearing aids is set in stone, and we’re seeing new improvements every year.

The Future of Hearing Aids

One of the most popular developments in hearing aid technology is the concept of rechargeable batteries. We’ve gone from hulking, single-use power blocks to the button-shaped batteries we still use today, but that’s not enough for many people. Our cellphones and laptops use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, and hearing aids are adopting that technology as well. This reduces the marginal cost of owning hearing aids and allows for experimentation with size and shape.

Because of size and battery constraints, hearing aids have come to adopt a uniform shape across each category. Behind-the-ear hearing aids are typically fashioned a certain way, but we at Signia challenge that concept with the Styletto hearing aid. Rechargeable rod-shaped batteries allow the hearing aid to take a new form, appearing more like a piece of jewelry than a hearing aid. For those who dislike the appearance of traditional hearing aids, this is a step in the right direction.

Advancements are being made with every new feature and design. Because technology is constantly improving, the future of hearing aids is a bright horizon. Whether you wear hearing aids or not, it’s something to behold.

If you found this article interesting, you’ve got more reading material to go over. There’s a lot to learn about hearing aids, and Signia puts out new articles every month. These articles discuss audiology, hearing aids, and what you need to know about your ears. If you want to stay in the loop, the Signia newsletter will inform you about any and all pressing updates.