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The Evolution of the Hearing Aid

Throughout the ages, human beings have suffered from various types and degrees of hearing loss. Thankfully, as technology has improved, so have our methods for improving hearing. From early deafness “cures” and large hand-held equipment, age-old methods have given way to tiny, high-tech devices. Indeed, the hearing aid has made incredible progress over the centuries. In this article, we’ll give a visual history of that progress.

Early Thoughts on Hearing Loss

The earliest written record of hearing problems comes from Ancient Egypt, around 1550 BC. The Ebers Papyrus proposes various remedies for the ‘Ear-That-Hears-Badly’. These included injecting such undesirables as red lead, ant eggs, bat wings and goat urine into the ears (yikes!), along with the much more pleasant olive oil. We don’t know whether such remedies may have been applied to temporary hearing loss or more more permanent deafness. Oddly enough, temporary hearing loss (likely caused by simple wax build up) may have been treatable with olive oil. Even back then, they could have been onto something! But there’s more:

  • Around 100 AD, Greek physician Archigenes suggested that blowing trumpets into the ear could cure deafness (ouch!)
    [image – blowing trumpet in ear]
  • In 1551, Italian physician, mathematician and philosopher Girolamo Cardanomade a discovery surrounding the conduction of sound through bone. In his writings, he pointed out how sound could be transmitted to the ear by if one held a rod or spear between their teeth.

Aside from progress in the treatment of hearing loss, several people were influential in the development of education and communication strategies for the deaf. Specifically:

  • Around the year 1555, Pedro Ponce de Leon, a Spanish monk, is believed to pioneered a method for educating the deaf. He even taught the deaf children of some members of the nobility, in a convent in Valladolid, Spain.
  • Later that century, Juan Pablo Bonet, a Spanish educator, published a book proposing that deaf students should be taught a one-handed manual alphabet. He thought this should be followed by articulation, speaking, and eventually reading and writing. Bonet helped pioneer the development of sign language with his “finger alphabet.”
  • In 1616, Italian lawyer and author Giovanni Bonifacio (1547-1635) discusses sign language in his treatise, Of the Art of Signs.

Earliest Documented Hearing Devices

Perhaps due to the strides being made in education and rising awareness of hearing loss, scientists and others began developing technologies to help people hear better. For example, In 1620, Italian physician and scientist Giovanni Battista Porta detailed some early hearing aid designs in his publication, Magia Naturalis, or Natural Magic.These hearing aids were made of wood and shaped like the ears of animals known to have acute hearing. However strange this may sound, his design gave way to other technologies that actually began to help those suffering from hearing loss.

Hearing Trumpets

For the next few hundred years (about 1600 to 1900), the most prevalent hearing aids were what is collectively referred to as ear trumpets. Ear trumpets are considered the first modern hearing devices. They were introduced by French mathematician Jean Leurechon, who first described them in writing.

Sophisticated in their day, trumpet hearing aids provided a non-electric amplification and direction of sound into the ear canal. They came in many different forms and designs, with names such as London Domes, Pipe Trumpets, and Dippers. Some were even incorporated into hats or headbands, or made to resemble flowers a lady could tuck behind her ear. Who says function can’t be fashionable?

Electric Hearing Aids

Electric hearing aids made their debut in the early 20th century, following the dawn of the telephone age. As you can imagine, telephone technologies had a major impact on the development of hearing aids.

The carbon microphone, for example, was based on the technology pioneered byAlexander Graham Bell, though Bell was not involved in the development of this hearing device. The carbon microphone, which required a corded power source, represents a breakthrough in sound reproduction. It used sound waves to push carbon against a diaphragm, which helped deliver sound into the ear. Though not very effective for severe hearing loss, the carbon microphone paved the way for further hearing aid development.

Hearing Help Becomes Portable

Between 1920 and 1940, people became interested in more portable hearing aids. Hence, the vacuum tube hearing aid was developed.

Introduced around 1926, vacuum tube devices employed one small peanut tube to amplify the output of a carbon hearing aid. Inventor Earl C. Hanson called his new hearing aid the “Vactuphone.” While the Vactuphone was more effective for severe hearing loss, it required two batteries, increasing the cost of use. Over the years, vacuum tube hearing aids were improved and made smaller, until transistor technology was introduced.

The Transistor Age

In the 1950s and 60s, hearing aid technology made a big leap with the introduction of transistors, invented by Bell Laboratories. Transistor hearing aids provided longer battery life than vacuum-tube models, and thus a lower operating cost. Over the years, as transistor technology improved, vacuum tubes were eliminated from the hearing aid market altogether.

Transistors allowed hearing aids to become smaller and user-friendly, including the earliest behind the hear (or BTE) models. Though limited in their ability to filter noise and speech, transistor hearing aids represented a major advancement in hearing technology. Transistors were the primary hearing aid technology for the next two decades, until digital technology became available.

blowing_trumpet_in_earThe Digital Revolution

No technology has made a bigger impact on hearing aids than digital. By the 1980s, hearing aid companies began to introduce digital technology in the form of digital signal producers (DSPs). The resulting development of different channels and bands allowed for more refined sound filtering and stronger amplification than ever before. Plus, digital technology allowed for even smaller, more discreet hearing aids.

In 1996, the Widex Senso was the first all-digital hearing aid to be successfully sold to the public. In 1997, Siemens debuted the first digital hearing aid with dual microphone technology for better performance.

Today, DSPs remain the basis for today’s most prevalent and best-selling hearing aids.

Smaller and Better Than Ever

Thanks to digital technology, in 1994, the first hearing aid to be worn completely-in-the-ear (CIC) was introduced by Starkey and Argosy. CIC hearing aids allowed for the introduction of remote-control and programmable technologies employed by many hearing aids today.

These days, CIC hearing aids are more common than BTE (behind-the-ear) models. These tiny devices provide better quality of life and unmatched invisibility for many suffering the effects of hearing loss.

Internal Hearing Devices

In 1995, the cochlear implant received FDA approval for use in adults. It was approved for use in children two years later.

While hearing aids amplify sound, helping damaged ears to detect them, cochlear implants actually bypass the damaged parts of the ear. They stimulate the auditory nerve directly, so that the signals the implant generates can be sent directly to the brain for detection and interpretation. Pretty amazing stuff.

In 2000, the first implantable, middle-ear hearing device received FDA approval. These devices are used to treat sensorineural hearing loss (which is due to lesions or disease of the inner ear or the auditory nerve). These implants actually cause the ossicles in the ear to vibrate, and provide for adjustments that bring optimal, individual compensation for hearing loss.

In 2008, the first completely invisible deep-canal hearing aid was introduced. These can be worn 24/7, and can safely stay in place for months at a time – even in the shower. A keychain-like remote can be used to adjust the volume. Patients with mild to moderate hearing loss, without problems or infections in the ear canal may be a good fit for deep-canal devices.

Hearing aids of the future

The first hearing aid to be compatible with bluetooth-enabled mobile phones was introduced in 2006. The newest technologies provide the ability to link wireless devices (such as smartphones, TVs, and more) to directly to hearing aids for adjustments and more. Today, some hearing aids can even communicate with each other, providing unmatched precision and fine tuning.

A bright future is on the horizon for those suffering the effects of hearing loss. If you or a loved one suspect hearing loss or need to adjust or repair a hearing device, see ahearing professional today. They can help you improve your quality of life.

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