We might take it for granted that our hearing aids are scarcely noticeable, can be managed with our cell phones, and can discern between speech and background sound. What we may not recognize, however, is that those features are the products of 400 years of experimentation, design, and improvement.
Even as early as 5 years ago, hearing aids could not deliver the clarity of sound produced today. To understand why, let’s trace the history of hearing aids—starting today and moving in reverse—to see how hearing aids would have treated 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 launch a web browser, search for a local hearing care professional, fill out a brief form, and arrange an appointment.
At your hearing assessment, your hearing is analyzed using sophisticated computer technology that accurately measures your hearing. Then, with the help of your hearing consultant, you decide on a hearing aid that complements your needs from a vast selection of models.
Then, your hearing expert programs your new hearing aids to intensify only the sounds and frequencies you have trouble hearing, giving you crystal clear sound without distortion.
If you told anyone in the 1980’s that this would be the process, they wouldn’t have thought it was possible.
So what did make it possible? In essence, digital technology.
For most of their history, there was no way for hearing aids to distinguish between various sound frequencies. Hearing aids would amplify all inbound sound, including background noise, generating distorted sound.
The digital revolution addressed that issue. With digital technology, all information can be transformed, stored, and manipulated as combinations of 0’s and 1’s. Digital technology enabled hearing aids to transform sound frequencies into digital information, which could then be sorted according to which sounds should be amplified (speech) and which should be restrained (background noise).
The first all-digital hearing aid was created in 1995, and since then the technology has improved dramatically, eventually to include wireless capability.
1985 – Transistor Hearing Aids
Now, imagine it’s 1985 and you’re looking to treat your hearing loss. You can forget about searching for a local hearing care provider on the internet because the first commercial internet service provider won’t be founded until 1989.
You would have to use the phone book, rely on recommendations, or drive around the neighborhood to find a hearing care practice.
After scheduling an appointment and having your hearing tested, your options for hearing aids are very restricted. Without the microprocessor and digital technology, hearing aids were built with a series of transistors. This adds size and higher power requirements, leading to bigger batteries and larger hearing aids.
Additionally, without the benefit of digital technology, the hearing aid cannot differentiate between different frequencies of sound. Hearing aids receive incoming sound and the transistors function as simple amplifiers, amplifying all sound. So if you’re in a noisy room, speech recognition will be just about impossible.
1940 – Vacuum Tube Hearing Aids
It’s 1940 and you’re contemplating buying a hearing aid. Transistors haven’t been applied to hearing aids yet, so your options are restricted to vacuum tube hearing aids.
Vacuum tubes utilize more power than transistors, so the hearing aids require larger batteries, making the hearing aids big, heavy, and awkward.
And once again, without digital technology, the hearing aids can only act as simple amplification systems, making all inbound sound louder. The hearing aids cannot enhance speech and cannot 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. 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 option is mechanical amplification by concentrating and compressing sound into the ear, just like what takes place when you cup your hands around your ears.
By 1650, devices were developed that focused incoming sound into the ears, and these devices were labeled 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 readily available to individuals with hearing loss for the next 250 plus years.
Let’s return to 2016. Over more than 400 years of history, hearing aids have develop from mechanical amplification devices to electrical amplification devices, from vacuum-tube-based to digital-based. They’ve become increasingly more compact, lighter, and more efficient and affordable.
They’ve also become better at distinguishing among 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 generated a significant enhancement over the previous generation. The question is, what’s the next great milestone in the history of hearing aids?
Will we soon be able to improve natural human hearing, rather than simply restore it?