Milestones in Hearing Aid Technology

Hearing well improves our everyday lives, yet most of us take it for granted. However, not everyone gets to hold onto their best hearing as they age. Fortunately, over the years, technology has given us the gift of hearing aids that allow many people with hearing loss a chance to hear more clearly again. Let’s take a look at some milestones in hearing technology to see just how far it has come.

The dawn of hearing technology: 18th century

While as early as the 13th century people would hollow out animal horns to use as hearing devices, it wasn’t until the 18th century that a device called an ear trumpet became widely available. Ear trumpets varied in shape and size, and were intended to funnel sound into the inner ear to help the person using it hear better. Although it only offered minimal improvement, and didn’t do much to amplify sound, it’s still recognized as the first attempt to use ‘technology’ to help the hard of hearing.

Advancements in hearing health: 19th and 20th centuries

In 1878, Werner von Siemens built a telephone with a horseshoe magnet that considerably improved the device’s voice quality. This led to the discovery hearing loss sufferers could understand the person they were talking to much better if voice signals were amplified through electrical means.

Electricity and the invention of the telephone enabled creation of the first hearing aid in 1898. Miller Reese Hutchison, who was inspired by Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, created the Akoulallion (later renamed the Akouphone). It used a carbon transmitter, which was essential to making it portable. The Akouphone amplified sound by taking a signal and using an electric current to make it stronger.

In 1911, Louis Weber developed the first Siemens device designed specifically to improve hearing: The Esha-Phonophor. The device was supposed to amplify tones without interference while being as small and inconspicuous as possible. Originally planned as a single hearing aid for a friend of the company, the device turned out to be a huge success, and series production was launched December 1913.

In the 1920s, vacuum tubes were introduced into hearing aids, which helped increase sound levels as much as 70 decibels (dB). These tubes helped sound flow better than the carbon transmitter. Unfortunately, they were also large and not portable. In 1924, the size was reduced and a receiver added that users could put up to their ear. Although this device was better than the original, it was still bulky and amplified all sounds, rather than isolating sounds the user wanted to hear (e.g., a specific speaker).

The first wearable hearing aid wasn’t introduced until 1938. It had an earpiece, wire, and receiver, along with a battery back that had to be strapped to the wearer’s leg. Later, because of the technology produced during World War II, the industry was able to create a hearing aid with smaller-sized batteries and circuit boards. Although marketed as discreet most potential wearers still found it unappealing.

In 1948, the invention of the transistor finally allowed for the development of a smaller hearing aid that could be placed directly behind or above the wearer’s ear. A transistor provided wearers with the ability to turn the device on and off, for greater convenience. Thanks to transistor technology, Siemens launched the first behind-the-ear hearing aid called the “Auriculette” in 1959. It became a huge hit because potential wearers considered it a genuinely discreet option. Soon after, an “in-the-canal” (ITC) device was introduced, offering wearers even more choices. While this invention was revolutionary for improving comfort, discretion, and quality of sound, it still lacked the ability to filter noise and speech.

The state of hearing technology: late 20th century – present

Hearing aids started to make their transition to digital in the early 1960s. Bell Laboratories began producing both audio and speech signals using a large mainframe computer, which proved significant to learning how to improve hearing aid technology. Created in the 1970s, the microprocessor paved the way for companies to make hearing aids even smaller and more effective.

The first digital commercial hearing aid was introduced in 1987, and then, with significant competition from different companies, the digital BTE (behind-the-ear) hearing aid launched shortly soon thereafter in 1989. Digital hearing aids offered greater flexibility, could be fine-tuned, and were generally more adaptable to wearers’ hearing needs.

Fast-forward to the present day. We’ve seen vast improvements since the first fully digital hearing aid. Today’s hearing aids come in small to extremely discreet models, are very comfortable, and tackle common issues like background noise and directional hearing. Adding smartphone apps, accessories, and wireless direct connectivity has made hearing aids even easier for someone with hearing loss to adapt to quickly. Even with all these improvements, companies are still trying to find new ways to revolutionize hearing aids to make them even better than before. The ever-improving range of options make it worth your while to learn more about available hearing aids.

What do you think will be the next breakthrough in the hearing aid world?