We might take it as a given that our hearing aids are scarcely noticeable, can be controlled with our smartphones, and can discern between speech and background sound. What we may not recognize, however, is that those capabilities are the results of 400 years of experimentation, design, and refinement.
Even 5 years ago, hearing aids could not deliver the clarity of sound produced today. To see why, let’s track 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 – Contemporary Digital Hearing Aids
It’s 2016 and you’re searching to address your hearing loss. You launch an internet browser, search for a nearby hearing care provider, complete a brief form, and arrange a consultation.
At your hearing exam, your hearing is examined using sophisticated computer technology that precisely evaluates your hearing. Then, with the help of your hearing professional, you select a hearing aid that matches your needs from a large selection of models.
Then, your hearing consultant programs your new hearing aids to enhance only the sounds and frequencies you have trouble hearing, which results in crystal clear sound without distortion.
If you were to tell someone in the 1980’s that this would be the process, they wouldn’t have believed 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 discern between various sound frequencies. Hearing aids would amplify all inbound sound, including background noise, creating distorted sound.
The digital revolution solved that challenge. With digital technology, all information can be converted, saved, and manipulated as combinations of 0’s and 1’s. Digital technology allowed hearing aids to transform sound frequencies into digital information, which could then be identified according to which sounds should be amplified (speech) and which should be suppressed (background noise).
The first all-digital hearing aid was created in 1995, and since then the technology has improved exponentially, eventually to include wireless capability.
1985 – Transistor Hearing Aids
Now it’s 1985 and you’re looking to treat your hearing loss. You can forget searching for a local hearing care provider on the web because the first commercial internet service provider won’t be founded until 1989.
You’d have to use the yellow pages, rely on recommendations, or drive around the neighborhood to find a hearing care practice.
After reserving a consultation and having your hearing examined, your choices for hearing aids are quite limited. With no microprocessor and digital technology, hearing aids were created with a collection of transistors. This adds size and increased power requirements, leading to bigger batteries and larger hearing aids.
Additionally, 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 function as basic amplifiers, amplifying all sound. So if you’re in a noisy 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 choices are confined to vacuum tube hearing aids.
Vacuum tubes consume more power than transistors, so the hearing aids call for larger batteries, making the hearing aids large, heavy, and cumbersome.
And once again, without digital technology, the hearing aids can only act as basic amplification devices, making all inbound sound louder. The hearing aids can’t 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. That means no way to convert sound into electrical currents that can be amplified.
With electrical amplification unattainable, your only choice is mechanical amplification by concentrating and compressing sound into the ear canal, like what happens when you cup your hands around your ears.
By 1650, gadgets were developed that concentrated 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 people with hearing loss for the following 250 plus years.
Let’s return to 2016. Over more than 400 years of history, hearing aids have evolved from mechanical amplification devices to electrical amplification devices, from vacuum-tube-based to digital-based. They’ve come to be significantly more compact, lighter, and more effective and affordable.
They’ve also become better at distinguishing between various types of sound, and in amplifying only certain kinds of sound (such as amplifying speech while suppressing background noise).
Each generation of hearing aid has made a significant upgrade over the previous generation. The question is, what’s the next great benchmark in the history of hearing aids?
Will we eventually be able to enhance natural human hearing, rather than merely restore it?