Healthy Aging

Not Your Grandpa’s: A Hearing Aid History

We wish we could say that the reason we missed Save Your Hearing Day on May 31 is because May 31 happened also to be Speak In Complete Sentences Day. The fact is, we didn’t hear about Save Your Hearing Day until now. Maybe we should have been wearing our hearing aids.

If you’re among the many seniors with compromised hearing who’s in denial (understandable!), you know you’re missing out. The good news? Today’s hearing aids are so not-your-mother’s hearing aid. There’s less stigma associated with wearing one. They’ve gone from big and clumsy to tiny and more effective. How much have they shrunk? A lot.

Take a look.


Deafness, Disguised



Hearing aids of yore were big. As early as the mid 1600’s, doctors were developing ”ear trumpets” and ”speaking trumpets” like the one pictured above, says  Cathy Sarli, a librarian at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, who helped assemble a hearing-aid history exhibit there. Some of these trumpets were 16 feet long.

© Becker Medical Library, Washington University


Next came the era of disguised hearing devices, such as the speaking tube above, circa 1810. It was meant to look like a vase for flowers.


Hearing Aids As Fashion


© Becker Medical Library, Washington University


In the 19th century, fashionistas could wear the flowery acoustic headband above, and no one knew a hearing device was hidden inside. Acoustic hand fans also had hidden hearing devices. More unusual: a bone conduction fan, which transmitted sound to the inner ear by the vibration of  bones in the teeth and skull. Your teeth needed to make contact with the fan, so good teeth and a nice smile were crucial.


On-The-Go Hearing Aid


© Becker Medical Library, Washington University


Horseback riders with less-than-perfect hearing had a novel solution – a water canteen receptor, circa 1875. Its open grillwork collected the sound and transmitted it through a single rubber tube that the user held up to his ear. Or course, that may have been the easy part; the horseback rider also had to handle the reins. 


Dapper Gentlemen Accommodated


Fashionable gents of the day could order an acoustic walking stick from catalogs – and presumably request plain-brown-wrapper shipments.


© Becker Medical Library, Washington University


The handle served as a hollow sound collector. The user rested the cane on his shoulder, the sound receptor facing him, and inserted the attached earpiece into his ear. The earpiece could be swiveled back down into the cane once the user was done listening.


Want A Hearing Aid With That Purse?


© Becker Medical Library, Washington University


In 1910, a company originally set up to build telegraph lines branched out and started producing hearing aid devices in wallets and ladies’ handbags. The ”deafness in disguise” trend – the title of the Washington University exhibit – continued.


Bye, Bye Mechanical Aids


 © Becker Medical Library, Washington University
© Becker Medical Library, Washington University


A major advance, Sarli says, was the transition from mechanical to electrical. No one’s calling these earlier devices sleek, as the model above shows. It’s circa 1927 and was based on telephone technology by Alexander Graham Bell. It was large and cumbersome, although the microphone, in combination with a battery, could produce sound better than earlier mechanical models.


The Start of the “Modern” Era


© Becker Medical Library, Washington University
© Becker Medical Library, Washington University


Even in the so-called modern hearing aid era, in the early 1900’s, hearing aids were ”still the size of a large radio,” says Ruth Bentler, PhD, professor of speech pathology and audiology at the University of  Iowa and a fellow of the American Speech Language Hearing Association. The 1938 model above actually looked like a radio. “By the 1940’s or so, hearing aids had become the size of transistor radios,” she says. “But the quality of those hearing aids was pretty unacceptable.”


Going Digital


Between 1960 and 1995, the devices shrank – from clunky behind-the-ear models to today’s sometimes all-but-invisible in-ear styles. The behind-the-ear model on the left has tubing you can hardly see.

The first completely digital hearing aids, arriving in 1995, were game changers that made the older analog models all but obsolete, Bentler says. Analog aids convert sound waves into electrical signals, then amplify them. Digital models convert sound waves into numerical codes, then amplify them.


Now You See It…Now It’s Invisible


Courtesy, Better Hearing Institute
Courtesy, Better Hearing Institute
Courtesy, Better Hearing Institute
Courtesy, Better Hearing Institute







As they have grown smaller, hearing aids have become more cosmetically appealing.

Courtesy, Better Hearing Institute
Courtesy, Better Hearing Institute
  • About 80 percent of people chose in-the-ear aids, including the tiniest completely-in-the-canal aids.
  • Nearly 20 percent choose behind-the-ear models, says the Better Hearing Institute, an industry-supported group.
  • Only 1 percent of hearing aids sold today are housed in the eyeglasses or on the body.




The best new features, Bentler says, include digital noise reduction (making listening easier in noisy environments), directional microphones and the feedback canceler (no more ”whistling” hearing aids).

We’ve come a long way from the trumpet! 


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