We may take it as a given that our hearing aids are barely visible, can be managed with our smartphones, and can distinguish between speech and background sound. What we may not realize, however, is that those features are the products of 400 years of research, design, and enhancement.
Even as early as 5 years ago, hearing aids could not produce the clarity of sound generated today. To understand why, let’s track the history of hearing aids—beginning today and moving in reverse—to observe 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 looking to address your hearing loss. You open up a web browser, search for a local hearing care professional, complete a brief form, and arrange a consultation.
At your hearing test, your hearing is evaluated using advanced computer technology that precisely assesses your hearing. Then, with the help of your hearing professional, you decide on a hearing aid that meets your needs from a large selection of models.
Then, your hearing specialist programs your new hearing aids to magnify only the sounds and frequencies you have trouble hearing, bringing about 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 render 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 enhance all inbound sound, including background noise, producing distorted sound.
The digital revolution solved that challenge. With digital technology, all information can be altered, 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 categorized 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 then the technology has improved dramatically, ultimately to incorporate wireless functionality.
1985 – Transistor Hearing Aids
Now it’s 1985 and you’re seeking to treat your hearing loss. You can forget about searching for a local hearing care provider on the web because the first commercial internet service provider won’t be established until 1989.
You would need to use the yellow pages, depend on recommendations, or drive around the neighborhood to find a hearing care practice.
After booking a consultation and having your hearing evaluated, your options for hearing aids are quite restricted. With no microprocessor and digital technology, hearing aids were created with a sequence of transistors. This adds size and higher power requirements, resulting in larger batteries and larger hearing aids.
Also, without the advantage of digital technology, the hearing aid cannot 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 loud area, speech recognition will be practically impossible.
1940 – Vacuum Tube Hearing Aids
It’s 1940 and you’re looking into 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 utilize more power than transistors, so the hearing aids require larger batteries, making the hearing aids large, heavy, and awkward.
And once again, without digital technology, the hearing aids can only act as straightforward amplification devices, making all inbound sound louder. The hearing aids can’t enhance speech and cannot remove background noise.
1650 – Ear Trumpets
Let’s go all the way back to 1650. There’s no digital technology, no transistors, and no vacuum tubes. That means no way to transform 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, similar to what takes place when you cup your hands around your ears.
By 1650, gadgets were developed that focused incoming sound into the ears, and these devices were labeled ear trumpets. They were large gadgets with a conical end that picked up sound and a narrow end that concentrated the sound into the ear.
This would be the only technology accessible 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 develop from mechanical amplification devices to electrical amplification devices, from vacuum-tube-based to digital-based. They’ve become significantly smaller, lighter, and more effective and affordable.
They’ve also become better at differentiating among different types of sound, and in amplifying only certain types of sound (such as amplifying speech while suppressing background noise).
Each generation of hearing aid has generated a significant 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 enhance natural human hearing, rather than merely restore it?