Audiologist Doing A Hearing Test

The Cupped Hand and other Early “Hearing Aids”

Ever since the dawn of our time on Earth, humans have relied on our sense of hearing. But the complexity of the inner ear means that we are still learning about how our ears work, including how to handle hearing loss. Here is a brief history of our collective efforts to find hearing aid solutions.

The first hearing aids

The earliest hearing ‘aid’ is the ‘cupped ear’, which required the use of only your hand. If you have ever used your hand to aid your hearing, then you are in good company! It is said that Roman Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD) and notable 19th Century figure Thomas A. Edison both utilized a cupped hand for listening.

This technique is useful as a visual cue for speakers to slow down, turn to you, and speak clearly but does it really help with acoustic gain and speech understanding? This year, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis decided to put this to the test. They discovered that a magnitude of acoustic gain, ranging ~7-17 dB, was achievable by the cupped hand and like the range needed by people with mild to moderate hearing loss.

Furthermore, the researchers found that it decreased the signal to noise ratio (SNR) by 3.6 dB allowing for better speech understanding by increasing the sound collection surface and attenuating sounds from behind the listener. Their study showed that while not possessing the full benefits of modern devices “the cupped hand remains a universally expedient device.”

Following the cupped hand, the first hearing aids were not electronic, but mechanical. These do not require an external power source to conduct sound. The first mechanical device was the ear trumpet which was invented in the 17th century. The device came in a number of shapes and sizes and was made of everything from animal horns to sheet iron.

From mechanical to electronic

The prospect of electronic hearing aids arrived after Alexander Graham Bell’s creation of the telephone in 1876. This led to a new style of hearing aids that amplified sound electronically with a carbon microphone and a battery, which freed the hands to perform other duties as needed.

The first electronic hearing aids were worn around the neck in the form of a large box and necessitated carrying a bulky battery that only lasted for a few hours. In order to extend the life of the hearing aid, sometimes even larger batteries were worn on the body. Thankfully, battery miniaturization soon came about, which in the coming decades would drastically cut the hearing aid size.

The next major technological development was the transistor. By enabling many more features to be added, the transistor paved the way for more sophisticated hearing aids. Hearing aids shrunk even further, and the chance to use more inconspicuous devices increased the sales of hearing aids and spurred greater commercial interest in the creation of more advanced hearing aids.

In 1996, hearing aids had developed to their present-day type: digital. Digital technology uses the same technology used in modern-day cell phones and computers and enabled the programming of hearing aids, allowing user personalization, adaptability and fine tunings to be made. By 2005, digital hearing aids accounted for about 80 per cent of the market for hearing aids.

Today’s hearing aids

Fast forward to today, and the range of hearing aid technologies is mind-boggling. Products with a rechargeable hearing aid battery that lasts the entire day (lithium-ion) have been on the market for years. The latest Bluetooth hearing aids allow users to stream content from any phone straight to their ears. Some of the latest hearing aids even use machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve the hearing experience further.

Simply put, the hearing aid industry has come a long way from the cupped hand. Although today’s hearing aids lack the simplicity of that first hearing solution, it’s exciting to think about what technologies will be present in the hearing devices of the future.

Are you looking for the latest in hearing aid technology? Contact us today! We have a wide range of devices to suit all budgets and lifestyles.