We may take it for granted that our hearing aids are scarcely noticeable, can be managed with our smartphones, and can distinguish between speech and background sound. What we may not realize, however, is that those functions are the products of 400 years of experimentation, design, and development.
Even 5 years ago, hearing aids could not yield the clarity of sound generated today. To see why, let’s track the history of hearing aids—beginning today and moving backwards—to observe 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 treat your hearing loss. You launch an internet browser, search for a community hearing care provider, complete a brief form, and arrange an appointment.
At your hearing test, your hearing is evaluated using advanced computer technology that precisely assesses your hearing. Then, with the assistance of your hearing professional, you select a hearing aid that suits your requirements from a wide selection of models.
Then, your hearing practitioner programs your new hearing aids to intensify only the sounds and frequencies you have trouble hearing, bringing about crystal clear sound without distortion.
If you told someone in the 1980’s that this would be the process, they wouldn’t have thought 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 amplify all inbound sound, including background noise, producing distorted sound.
The digital revolution resolved that problem. With digital technology, all information can be changed, saved, and manipulated as permutations of 0’s and 1’s. Digital technology made it possible for hearing aids to convert sound frequencies into digital information, which could then be classified based on which sounds should be amplified (speech) and which should be restrained (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 capability.
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 established until 1989.
You’d need to use the phone book, rely on referrals, or drive around the neighborhood to find a hearing care practice.
After booking an appointment and having your hearing checked, your choices for hearing aids are very limited. With no microprocessor and digital technology, hearing aids were designed with a series of transistors. This adds size and increased power requirements, resulting in larger batteries and larger hearing aids.
Additionally, without the advantage of digital technology, the hearing aid cannot differentiate between various frequencies of sound. Hearing aids receive inbound sound and the transistors act 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 buying a hearing aid. Transistors haven’t been applied to hearing aids yet, so your choices are restricted 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 cumbersome.
And once again, without digital technology, the hearing aids can only act as straightforward amplification systems, 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. 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 alternative is mechanical amplification by focusing and compressing sound into the ear canal, just like what happens when you cup your hands around your ears.
By 1650, products 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 collected sound and a narrow end that concentrated the sound into the ear.
This would be the only technology accessible to people with hearing loss for the next 250 plus years.
Let’s return to 2016. Over more than 400 years of history, hearing aids have improved from mechanical amplification devices to electrical amplification devices, from vacuum-tube-based to digital-based. They’ve come to be increasingly more compact, lighter, and more efficient and affordable.
They’ve also become much better at differentiating among 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 produced a major enhancement 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 enhance natural human hearing, rather than merely restore it?