The Evolution of Hearing Aids

Hearing aids are always evolving. As technology becomes more powerful, new ideas emerge, and miniaturization progresses, but they still have many things in common with the very first devices of their kind. The history of how we've developed smartphone-integrated binaural digital wonders is fascinating, and something that even many regular hearing aid wearers don't learn much about. So, let's delve into the past and find out where the products we rely on to hear in the here and now actually come from. In the process, we might also get an idea about where things are headed.


The very first hearing assistance devices

Ever since people realized that hearing was fragile, and developed an understanding of the physics behind hearing, inventors have sought to create devices to hold off the effects of ageing or illness. The goal was to extend human capabilities allow us to hear for longer time. The very first "hearing aids" took the form of ear trumpets, which focused sounds and piped them straight into the ear canal. As far as we know, the first documented device of this type was created by a Jesuit priest called Jean Leurechon in the 1630s. By the 1700s, tinkerers had come up with more advanced designs that could be held in the hand and turned to catch conversation. Some were even collapsible, making them extra-portable, although only the very rich could afford such items. It would take another 100 years for ear trumpets to really become commercially viable, but by the 19th century, they were a common part of Victorian life.

Telephone technology sparks a new direction

The next major innovation in auditory technology came about as a result of a related invention: the telephone. When Alexander Graham Bell developed a way to capture sounds and send them electronically, he paved the way for similar devices which could be attached to human ears, performing the same function. But he wasn't the one to implement the idea. That honor fell to an Alabama native named Miller Reese Hutchison, who formed the Akouphone Company in 1895 to market a revolutionary invention. Hutchison's first designs aroused interest, but were too bulky to really catch on. However, he persevered, and harnessed the power of smaller batteries, reducing the bulk of his devices. However, problems of feedback remained, limiting the use of his invention. But others knew that Hutchison had struck gold, and moved ever onwards, tackling technological challenges, and approaching modern hearing aids, step by step.

The digital age creates totally new possibilities

Although inventors continued to work on Hutchison's ideas, the next breakthrough had to wait until the 1950s. With the introduction of transistors, more reliable carbon microphones, and a format known as "digital sound processing", eventually hearing aids started to perform much more impressively. DSP allowed engineers to process audio inputs with more precision. Instead of just applying volume controls, these chips allowed them to start working on screening out feedback, smoothing out frequency ranges, and even targeting certain noise sources. Still, progress was fairly slow by today's standards. While DSP was theoretically exciting, the processing power of hearing aids couldn't quite manage processing in real-time, and users wouldn't tolerate delays. As a result, analog hearing aids based on simple microphones and amplifiers were more popular, if rough around the edges. However, another breakthrough came when a system called BLODI was developed. On paper, just a way of modeling logic gates, BLODI allowed computer engineers to come up with a phone receiver which assisted hard-of-hearing users, creating a commercially viable device in 1967. Things were looking promising.

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The 1970s and 80s see quantum leaps in hearing aid performance

By the 1970s, companies were beginning to exploit the potential of discoveries made 20 or even 80 years previously. Researchers started to come up with compact designs which could be carried easily, and which included now common features like multi-channel systems. The 1970s also saw processing power develop to the point that full digital processing was now a formality. Audio signals could be received, turned into binary, processed, then reconverted into sound - something that was unimaginable only 15 years before. Initially, these digital systems were bulky, but by the late 1980s, parallel processor-based options had arrived, which drove down the weight of hearing aids. By the 90s, a flourishing market for fully digital, high-performance hearing aids existed across the world.

Smart technology takes center stage

As processor technology advanced and analog gave way to digital, a whole range of possibilities started to open up for hearing aid designers. Brands like Signia, Phonak, Starkey, and Audibel emerged who sought to create devices that were more programmable and flexible than ever. Some 90s models could be programmed by computers. As wireless tech developed, smartphones started to be hooked up to hearing aids. At first this was seen as a luxury, now it's becoming routine. At the same time, hearing aids can be connected to TVs and radios, or to external sound sources via telecoils - making it easier to focus on specific noises. And all the time, the size of these crucial devices has plummeted. These days, hearing aids that blow any analog device from 1980 out of the water can be the size of a thimble.

Discover the latest hearing aid technology and find the perfect device

Although you will struggle to find a next generation ear trumpet, you will find a vast array of digital hearing aids on the market. Some are adapted for very active users. Others are extremely high-powered and suit those with serious hearing loss, while others are all about smartphone interaction. Some are fully rechargeable, and some have endless programmable settings, so you can customize them at will. So, find one that meets your own needs perfectly. Things have come a long way in the hearing aid world, and people like you are reaping the benefits.


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