In this day and age, we take for granted the miraculously crafted hearing aids that allow millions of people to fully experience the world around them rather than living a life hindered by silence or hearing loss.
Hearing-aid history is convoluted but is an example of how technology evolves over time as more discoveries are made and lessons are learned. The first hearing aids appeared as far back as the 17th century. These were funnel-shaped devices known as 'ear trumpets', whose appearance matched their comical name. Cumbersome and not practical or functional, these were the first iteration of the modern hearing aid.
The first electric hearing aid was created by Miller Reese Hutchison in 1898. Hutchinson was inspired by the great inventor Alexander Graham Bell and his invention, the telephone – man’s first foray into controlling sound transmission, volume and frequency.
Hutchinson coined his invention the Akouphone. It used a carbon transmitter and an electrical current to increase the strength of the signal.
Soon after, in 1907, the vacuum tube was invented. The vacuum tube acts as a sound amplifier however the first version wasn’t exactly practical, being incredibly bulky and heavy.
Over the years, the weight of vacuum tubes was reduced, but not enough to make them practical for those suffering from hearing loss. Couple this with the fact that people had to hold 'receivers' up to their ears to hear the amplified sounds and you can see why these pieces of equipment are now a part of hearing-aid history and not modern-day solutions.
Over the next several decades, miniaturization and practicality came to the forefront of hearing aid innovation.
The first wearable hearing aid was created by Aurex Corp in 1938. The device consisted of an amplifier-receiver which was clipped to the user’s clothes with a thin wire connected to an earpiece. A battery pack, which powered the device, was also strapped to the user’s clothes.
World War II led to further advancements in the field of audiology in response to the requirements of war-affected veterans. The war itself also pushed the advancement of technology, with miniaturized electronics becoming crucial to the war effort.
The invention of the transistor was a gigantic leap in the technology of hearing aid history. These replaced the larger vacuum tubes and were more energy efficient. Over the next several decades, through further development and re-design, these hearing aids became recognizable as the predecessors of modern-day hearing aids.
The 1970s would prove to be the next great leap forward for hearing aids. Scientists had explored the idea of using computers to aid those with hearing loss. However, practicality and implementation simply didn’t match up due to the sheer size of computers at that time.
Along came micro-processors, which would allow miniaturization of the hearing aid to be taken to the next level.
In 1982 at the City University of New York, the first hearing aid to use microcomputers to process signals in real time was developed. It used FM technology to transmit signals to be processed by the microcomputer. Then in 1989, the first iteration of the behind the ear (BTE) hearing aid was produced. The humble hearing aid had come along way from holding a horn to one’s ear to now being an almost invisible device driven by wonders of technology.
In 1995, Oticon developed the world’s first digital hearing device, the JUMP-1. It could be reprogrammed, and attempted to use different signal-processing systems over extended periods of time to allow normal daily use. Oticon actually shipped the device to multiple audiology research development centres worldwide to share its technology and allow for further developments in hearing aid technology.
The following year, Widex introduced the first fully commercialized hearing aid. The 'Senso' had fully-automatic digital adjustment, with the user needing only to choose whether to activate the microphone or telecoil input. Everything else was adjusted automatically, meaning unwanted noise could be efficiently filtered out. The device even had its own built-in audiometer.
From 1996 to today, the technological advancement of hearing aids has continued to accelerate far beyond what those who had originally created the devices in the 17th century could ever imagine.
Modern-day hearing aids continue to shrink in size, are now suitable for all ages (including babies), can be connected to a range of other electronic devices using and, as recently as 2019, hearing aids may now be equipped with health monitoring artificial intelligence, which can even detect when elderly/frail users have fallen over.
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