We might take it as a given that our hearing aids are scarcely visible, can be controlled with our cell phones, and can distinguish 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 5 years ago, hearing aids could not generate the clarity of sound generated at present. To understand why, let’s trace 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 – Contemporary Digital Hearing Aids
It’s 2016 and you’re searching to treat your hearing loss. You launch an internet browser, search for a community hearing care professional, complete a quick form, and book an appointment.
At your hearing exam, your hearing is examined using state-of-the-art computer technology that accurately evaluates your hearing. Then, with the help of your hearing care professional, you select a hearing aid that complements your needs 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 were to tell 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 essence, digital technology.
For the majority of their history, there was no way for hearing aids to differentiate between assorted sound frequencies. Hearing aids would magnify all incoming sound, including background noise, creating distorted sound.
The digital revolution solved that issue. With digital technology, all information can be transformed, saved, and manipulated as combinations of 0’s and 1’s. Digital technology made it possible for hearing aids to transform sound frequencies into digital information, which could then be labeled based on 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 tremendously, ultimately to include wireless capability.
1985 – Transistor Hearing Aids
Now it’s 1985 and you’re seeking 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 established until 1989.
You’d have to use the phone book, depend on recommendations, or drive around the neighborhood to find a hearing care practice.
After reserving a consultation and having your hearing analyzed, your choices for hearing aids are very limited. Without the microprocessor and digital technology, hearing aids were created with a sequence of transistors. This adds size and increased power requirements, leading to bigger batteries and massive hearing aids.
Additionally, without the benefit of digital technology, the hearing aid can’t differentiate between various frequencies of sound. Hearing aids receive inbound sound and the transistors behave as basic amplifiers, amplifying all sound. So if you’re in a noisy area, 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 restricted to vacuum tube hearing aids.
Vacuum tubes consume more power than transistors, so the hearing aids require larger batteries, making the hearing aids large, heavy, and cumbersome.
And once again, without digital technology, the hearing aids can only act as straightforward amplification devices, making all incoming sound louder. The hearing aids can’t enhance speech and cannot filter out 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 convert sound into electrical currents that can be amplified.
With electrical amplification unattainable, your only choice is mechanical amplification by focusing and compressing sound into the ear canal, such as 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 named ear trumpets. They were prominent gadgets with a conical end that collected sound and a narrow end that focused the sound into the ear.
This would be the only technology obtainable 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 become considerably smaller, lighter, and more efficient and affordable.
They’ve also become much better at distinguishing among various types of sound, and in amplifying only selected kinds of sound (like amplifying speech while suppressing background noise).
Each generation of hearing aid has made a major improvement 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 enhance natural human hearing, rather than simply restore it?