We might take it for granted that our hearing aids are hardly noticeable, can be operated with our smartphones, and can discern between speech and background noise. What we might not recognize, however, is that those functions are the results of 400 years of experimentation, design, and refinement.
Even as early as 5 years ago, hearing aids could not deliver the clarity of sound produced at present. To see why, let’s trace the history of hearing aids—beginning today and travelling 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 open up a web browser, search for a nearby hearing care provider, submit a quick form, and book a consultation.
At your hearing assessment, your hearing is screened using sophisticated computer technology that accurately measures your hearing. Then, with the assistance of your hearing professional, you select a hearing aid that accommodates your needs from a large range of models.
Then, your hearing consultant programs your new hearing aids to intensify only the sounds and frequencies you have trouble hearing, leading to 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 short, digital technology.
For the majority of their history, there was no way for hearing aids to discern between different sound frequencies. Hearing aids would magnify all inbound sound, including background noise, creating distorted sound.
The digital revolution solved that issue. With digital technology, all information can be changed, stored, and manipulated as combinations of 0’s and 1’s. Digital technology permitted hearing aids to transform sound frequencies into digital information, which could then be labeled in accordance with which sounds should be amplified (speech) and which should be suppressed (background noise).
The first all-digital hearing aid was produced in 1995, and since that time the technology has improved tremendously, eventually to include wireless functionality.
1985 – Transistor Hearing Aids
Now, imagine it’s 1985 and you’re planning to treat your hearing loss. You can forget 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 need to use the yellow pages, rely on recommendations, or drive around the neighborhood to find a hearing care practice.
After reserving an appointment and having your hearing tested, your choices for hearing aids are very limited. With no microprocessor and digital technology, hearing aids were created with a collection of transistors. This adds size and increased power requirements, resulting in larger batteries and larger hearing aids.
Additionally, without the benefit of digital technology, the hearing aid can’t distinguish between different frequencies of sound. Hearing aids receive inbound sound and the transistors function as simple amplifiers, amplifying all sound. So if you’re in a noisy room, speech recognition will be nearly impossible.
1940 – Vacuum Tube Hearing Aids
It’s 1940 and you’re thinking about buying a hearing aid. Transistors haven’t been applied to hearing aids yet, so your options are confined to vacuum tube hearing aids.
Vacuum tubes consume more power than transistors, so the hearing aids demand 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 incoming sound louder. The hearing aids cannot enrich 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 unattainable, your only option is mechanical amplification by focusing and compressing sound into the ear, like what takes place when you cup your hands around your ears.
By 1650, devices were developed that concentrated inbound sound into the ears, and these contraptions were labeled ear trumpets. They were prominent devices with a conical end that collected 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 the course of 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 come to be considerably smaller, lighter, and more efficient and affordable.
They’ve also become better at differentiating among different types of sound, and in amplifying only particular kinds of sound (like amplifying speech while suppressing background noise).
Every generation of hearing aid has made a major 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 improve natural human hearing, rather than merely restore it?