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Ear Trumpets

We may take it for granted that our hearing aids are barely detectable, can be controlled with our smart phones, and can differentiate between speech and background sound. What we might not realize, however, is that those functions are the results of 400 years of research, design, and improvement.

Even as early as 5 years ago, hearing aids could not generate the clarity of sound generated at present. To understand why, let’s follow the history of hearing aids—starting today and moving in reverse—to see how hearing aids would have handled your hearing loss in four different years: 2016, 1985, 1940, and 1650.

2016 – Modern Digital Hearing Aids

It’s 2016 and you’re looking to address your hearing loss. You open up a web browser, search for a community hearing care professional, fill out a quick form, and arrange a consultation.

At your hearing assessment, your hearing is examined using advanced computer technology that precisely measures your hearing. Then, with the assistance of your hearing practitioner, you select a hearing aid that matches your needs from a large range of models.

Then, your hearing expert programs your new hearing aids to enhance only the sounds and frequencies you have trouble hearing, resulting in crystal clear sound without distortion.

If you told anyone in the 1980’s that this would be the process, they wouldn’t have believed it was possible.

So what did render it possible? In a nutshell, digital technology.

For most of their history, there was no way for hearing aids to discern between assorted sound frequencies. Hearing aids would intensify all inbound sound, including background noise, generating distorted sound.

The digital revolution resolved that issue. With digital technology, all information can be transformed, stored, and manipulated as combinations of 0’s and 1’s. Digital technology made it possible for hearing aids to transform sound frequencies into digital information, which could then be labeled according to which sounds should be amplified (speech) and which should be suppressed (background noise).

The first all-digital hearing aid was developed in 1995, and since that time the technology has improved exponentially, ultimately to include wireless functionality.

1985 – Transistor Hearing Aids

Now it’s 1985 and you’re planning to treat your hearing loss. You can forget about browsing for a local hearing care provider on the web because the first commercial internet service provider won’t be founded until 1989.

You would have to use the phone book, depend on referrals, or drive around the neighborhood to find a hearing care practice.

After reserving a consultation and having your hearing evaluated, your choices for hearing aids are quite limited. Without the microprocessor and digital technology, hearing aids were manufactured with a sequence of transistors. This adds size and higher power requirements, resulting in larger batteries and massive hearing aids.

Also, without the advantage of digital technology, the hearing aid can’t differentiate between various frequencies of sound. Hearing aids receive incoming sound and the transistors act as basic amplifiers, amplifying all sound. So if you’re in a loud area, speech recognition will be practically impossible.

1940 – Vacuum Tube Hearing Aids

It’s 1940 and you’re interested in purchasing a hearing aid. Transistors haven’t been applied to hearing aids yet, so your choices are confined to vacuum tube hearing aids.

Vacuum tubes utilize more power than transistors, so the hearing aids call for larger batteries, making the hearing aids big, heavy, and awkward.

And once again, without digital technology, the hearing aids can only act as straightforward amplification devices, making all inbound sound louder. The hearing aids can’t enhance speech and can’t remove background noise.

1650 – Ear Trumpets

Let’s travel all the way back to 1650. There’s no digital technology, no transistors, and no vacuum tubes. As a result, there is no way to transform sound into electrical currents that can be amplified.

With electrical amplification out of the question, your only choice is mechanical amplification by focusing and compressing sound into the ear canal, as with what takes place when you cup your hands around your ears.

By 1650, devices were developed that focused inbound sound into the ears, and these contraptions were called ear trumpets. They were prominent gadgets with a conical end that picked up sound and a narrow end that focused the sound into the ear.

This would be the only technology available to people with hearing loss for the next 250 plus years.

Let’s return to 2016. Over more than 400 years of history, hearing aids have progressed from mechanical amplification devices to electrical amplification devices, from vacuum-tube-based to digital-based. They’ve come to be progressively smaller, lighter, and more effective and affordable.

They’ve also become better at differentiating between different types of sound, and in amplifying only particular types of sound (such as amplifying speech while repressing background noise).

Each generation of hearing aid has produced a significant improvement over the previous generation. The question is, what’s the next major benchmark in the history of hearing aids?

Will we soon be able to enhance natural human hearing, rather than merely restore it?