Hearing Aids: Then vs. Now

Imagine putting a horn in your ear to amplify sound, or carrying around a bulky battery for your hearing aid. These were once the only options for people with hearing loss. Thanks to advancements in technology, hearing aids have gone through a dramatic change over the last century. From size and battery power to features, it’s amazing to see where hearing amplification started and where it is today.

With hearing aids, bigger isn’t better

Pre-19th century
Today, wearers have a multitude of hearing aid options ranging from discreet to nearly invisible; but it didn’t start out that way. As early as the 13th century, people used large and bulky ear horns (also known as “ear trumpets”) to funnel sound waves to the eardrum. They came in a variety of shapes and sizes and were made from materials like sheet metal, silver, wood, snail shells, and even animal horns.

1800s – 1900s
Fast-forward to the late 1800s when Miller Hutchison invented the Akoulallion. It was one of the first electric hearing aids, but unfortunately was so large it had to be placed on a table. Over the next few years, the device decreased to the size of a briefcase and became a portable option for individuals with hearing loss. In 1911, Louis Weber developed the first Siemens device to improve hearing: the Esha-Phonophor (the middle photo above). Drastically smaller than the Akoulallion, it provided an easier option for people on the go.

2000s – Now
After the introduction of a wearable hearing aid in 1938, the devices only became smaller. Options  range from behind-the-ear (BTE) models to fully customized in-the-ear (ITE) devices built from moldings made of the user’s ear canal. Nearly invisible hearing aids are very popular with hearing aid wearers, and the development of completely-in-the-canal (CIC), invisible-in-the-canal (IIC), and similar options are a major focus of the present-day hearing aid industry.

Batteries become less of a hassle

1800s – 1900s
Hearing aids started off quite large, and so were their batteries. Even after it was re-designed, Huchison’s Akoulallion still required a large, six-volt storage battery (yikes!). Meanwhile, Weber’s Phonophor required a much less bulky battery,  small enough to fit in a purse. In the 1950s, the introduction of the transistor allowed a much smaller battery to be used, but it generally had to be attached somewhere on the body. Beginning in the 1970s, the hearing aid industry took advantage of the development of zinc air batteries for wearable hearing aids. Tiny and packed with power, they have a decent battery life. 

2000s – Present
Zinc air batteries remain the most common power source for hearing aids today (fortunately, minus the mercury). They come in a variety of sizes designated for different types of hearing aids. A relatively new innovation, and an attractive factor in hearing aids, is rechargeability.

The first rechargeable hearing aid batters were nickel metal hydride, but they didn’t hold much charge. However, the introduction of lithium ion technology has transformed the industry., Though the charge would only last a few hours at first, as technology advanced, the power of the lithium ion battery has only increased. The charge can now last up to 24 hours, reducing the stress of having to constantly change or recharge batteries.

Improved hearing clarity and exciting new features

Pre-19th century
The features of ear horns were pretty limited.. Usually in a funnel shape design, you would insert the narrow side in your ear to “funnel” sound to the ear drum. Though they came in different sizes and styles, they all had the same goal—to simply capture more sound.

1800s – 1900s
Inspired by the invention of the telephone, Hutchison’s Akoulallion used a carbon transmitter essential to its portability. The device amplified sound by taking a signal and using an electric current to make it stronger. Weber’s Esha-Phonophor was described as a “sound catcher with two microphones.” The device could amplify tones without interference, and was designed to be small and inconspicuous.

The invention of the transistor gave hearing aid companies the opportunity to develop a small, convenient device placed right behind the ear. The transistor gave wearers the ability to turn the device on and off. While the size and sound quality steadily improved, they still lacked the features that many wearers desired.

The first commercial digital hearing aid was introduced in 1987, offering greater flexibility to meet wearers’ needs. Their creation led to a race among hearing aid companies to add the next best feature to their devices.

2000s – Present
Today, hearing aid companies strive to introduce new ways to make wearing hearing aids more comfortable and convenient. There are numerous technology levels for the different severities of hearing loss, and the variety of features fit different lifestyle needs and preferences. Speech clarity, directional microphones, rechargeability and wireless connectivity are just some of the cutting-edge features to come in to play over the past couple decades.

Today, hearing aid companies focus on improving hearing clarity by reducing wind, echo, and background noise. They have  also leverage enhanced connectivity like smartphone apps and wearable accessories to make hearing aids easier and more fun to wear. Though innovation in the hearing aid industry will only continue, it’s remarkable to think about how far we have already come..