We might take it for granted that our hearing aids are hardly noticeable, can be managed with our cell phones, and can differentiate between speech and background sound. What we might not recognize, however, is that those capabilities are the results of 400 years of experimentation, design, and development.
Even 5 years ago, hearing aids could not provide the clarity of sound generated today. To see why, let’s trace the history of hearing aids—beginning today and going backwards—to see how hearing aids would have handled your hearing loss in four different years: 2016, 1985, 1940, and 1650.
2016 – Modern Day 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 schedule a consultation.
At your hearing assessment, your hearing is tested using advanced computer technology that accurately measures your hearing. Then, with the assistance of your hearing professional, you pick out a hearing aid that meets your requirements from a wide selection of models.
Then, your hearing consultant programs your new hearing aids to amplify only the sounds and frequencies you have difficulty hearing, resulting in crystal clear sound without distortion.
If you were to tell 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 essence, digital technology.
For the majority of their history, there was no way for hearing aids to discern between various sound frequencies. Hearing aids would enhance all inbound sound, including background noise, producing distorted sound.
The digital revolution cleared up that problem. With digital technology, all information can be transformed, saved, and manipulated as permutations of 0’s and 1’s. Digital technology permitted hearing aids to transform sound frequencies into digital information, which could then be grouped based on 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 then the technology has improved tremendously, eventually to include wireless functionality.
1985 – Transistor Hearing Aids
Now it’s 1985 and you’re looking to treat your hearing loss. You can forget about browsing for a local hearing care provider on the internet because the first commercial internet service provider won’t be founded until 1989.
You would need to use the yellow pages, depend on referrals, or drive around the neighborhood to find a hearing care practice.
After scheduling an appointment and having your hearing evaluated, your options for hearing aids are very limited. With no microprocessor and digital technology, hearing aids were developed with a collection of transistors. This adds size and increased power requirements, resulting in larger batteries and massive hearing aids.
Additionally, without the advantage of digital technology, the hearing aid can’t differentiate between different frequencies of sound. Hearing aids receive inbound sound and the transistors function 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 thinking about acquiring a hearing aid. Transistors haven’t been applied to hearing aids yet, so your options are limited to vacuum tube hearing aids.
Vacuum tubes consume 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 basic amplification devices, making all incoming sound louder. The hearing aids cannot enrich speech and can’t filter out 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. That means no way to convert sound into electrical currents that can be amplified.
With electrical amplification unattainable, your only possibility is mechanical amplification by focusing and compressing sound into the ear canal, similar to what takes place when you cup your hands around your ears.
By 1650, products were developed that concentrated inbound sound into the ears, and these devices were labeled ear trumpets. They were large devices with a conical end that collected sound and a narrow end that concentrated the sound into the ear.
This would be the only technology available to those with hearing loss for the following 250 plus years.
Let’s return to 2016. Over the course of more than 400 years of history, hearing aids have advanced from mechanical amplification devices to electrical amplification devices, from vacuum-tube-based to digital-based. They’ve become progressively more compact, lighter, and more effective and affordable.
They’ve also become much better at differentiating between various types of sound, and in amplifying only certain kinds of sound (such as amplifying speech while repressing background noise).
Each generation of hearing aid has generated a significant upgrade 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 improve natural human hearing, rather than merely restore it?