A look back at some of the hearing devices of the past and their modern-day counterparts.
BLARIN’ WITH FLAIR
Old-timey Hearing Aid: The Ear Trumpet The first widely manufactured hearing aids were ear trumpets—those instruments of aural assistance that were about as discreet as a giraffe at your dinner table. They ranged from about 6 inches to 12 inches long and came in a variety of materials: silver, brass, wood, ivory, tortoiseshell, faux tortoiseshell. They came camouflaged in fans, curved like pipes and straight like soprano saxophones, but the basic principle remained the same: collect sound via a large opening and funnel it into the ear via a small opening.
Some people managed to make their ear trumpets fashionable, like the eccentric Swiss aristocrat Madame de Meuron, pictured above. She reportedly once answered the question of why she carried an ear trumpet by saying, “So I can hear only what I want to hear.” Hmph!
Newfangled counterpart: The Soundhawk The “Soundhawk Smart Listening System” is not about hiding your need for an earpiece. It’s about saying it loud and proud: “I’m having trouble hearing everyone at this table, and so I’m going to put this device in my ear and put this other device (a wireless mic) right here on the table next to the butter, and then I’ll be able to hear everyone just fine.” This is the magic of hearables—hearing aids that look like the Bluetooth devices and wireless earbuds you see everywhere but which do extra stuff, like monitor your heart rate or, in this case, let you physically place the microphone in front of people you want to hear and far away, a la Mme Meuron, from those you don’t.
FITS LIKE AN EAR GLOVE
Old-timey Hearing Aid: Audiphone Auricle
In the 19th century, manufacturers like F. M. Blodgett and F.C. Rein made auricles—so named because they fit around the outside, or auricle, of the ear—that operated in similar fashion to the ear trumpet. They gathered sounds from a small horn-shaped opening that hung over the top of the ear and funneled it into the ear canal via a small tube that also helped keep the device in place. These came in an endless variety of shapes, sizes and materials. Some were decorative, like flowers. Some came with headbands for extra security. Some were hidden in people’s beards (no joke) with tubes running up to the ear (like no one was going to notice that). And some were absolutely tiny and truly discreet. But all of them were an attempt to make hearing aids less obtrusive and easier to just put on and forget about.
Part music system, part biometric assessment tool, the FreeWavz is an ear-fitted piece designed for extremely active people who want to listen to music while they’re working out really, really hard and also be alerted if the old ticker is getting wound too tight. According to one FreeWavz video, it’s also so secure that you can do a roundoff flip flop back flip without your FreeWavz falling out. Good to know.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL APPROACH
Old-timey Hearing Aid: Acoustical Chair For the hearing-challenged person who just didn’t want to bother with trumpets or doohickeys in their ears, there was the acoustical chair. These pieces of furniture incorporated various horn-shaped features—sometimes obviously, sometimes not—that gathered sound waves and ushered them either to the general area of the ear or right into the ear canal via a tube. The chair at left, constructed for King John VI of Portugal, had a fan-shaped sound gathering device underneath the seat and holes in the armrests, reportedly so supplicants to the king would have to kneel in order to be heard. The good king placed the end of the tube in his royal ear and listened to requests.
Newfangled counterpart: Here For the modern human who just doesn’t want to be bothered with noise that is unpleasing, there’s the Here system from Doppler Labs, which lets you put a big equalizer on the whole wide world. Just put in the wireless earbuds in, sync them up with your app-enabled smartphone, and you’ll be tuning out annoying stuff and turning up your favorite jams in no time. We like to think King John VI would have approved.
Want more? The hearing devices of yore got pretty crazy, from the “dentaphone,” which used paddles made of bone or rubberized metal to conduct sound through the teeth and bones when bitten, to tabletop amplification devices equipped with multiple hearing tubes, like a hookah for hearing. Washington University at St. Louis has a great online resource of called Concealed Hearing Devices of the 19th Century. Check it out, and have a happy Halloween from all of us at Neurotone.