Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

For centuries, people hollowed out animal horns and cut off the pointy ends. They would blow into the small end to make sounds that came out the big end. The sound traveled farther than human voices and so was used to communicate over longer distances. This was of great interest to military leaders who had to convey information to their troops over large battlefields. When the Bronze Age arrived, they ditched the animal horns for bugles made of shiny brass. And when someone added valves to the bugle, it was called a trumpet.

One day someone discovered that if they held the small hollow end to their ear and aimed the big end at the source of the sounds, they could hear better. The large end collected the sound and funneled it to the ear. The sound was not magnified, but there was more of it because it was concentrated at a single point. 

We’ve all tried to hear better by cupping our hands and holding them behind our ears

Over time, people discovered that cones, funnels, and trumpets were better shapes for catching sounds than animal horns. These devices collected sound waves and directed them to the listener’s ear through a hollow tube. They were called ear trumpets. 

Ear trumpets were aids for the hard-of-hearing, not for the stone-deaf

Ear trumpets were fairly common for more than a hundred years before they went into commercial production in 1800. Although ear trumpets helped people hear better, many people were too embarrassed to use one because it would draw unwanted attention to their affliction.

Embarrassment

Today’s doctors and audiologists know that most deaf people are sensitive about their handicap/impediment/circumstance. Most of the people who would benefit from using a hearing aid won’t wear one because it announces their deafness, an attribute that many are ashamed to admit. Isn’t it odd that we won’t wear hearing aids to improve our hearing but we will wear glasses to improve our vision?

One way to avoid embarrassment was by concealing and/or camouflaging the ear trumpet

Manufacturers attached small ear trumpets to bands that went over the user’s head, and the apparatus was easily hidden by the user’s hair. These acoustic headbands were mostly used by women. For men, manufacturers made ear trumpets that hung under the chin, hidden behind the large full beards that were the fashion of the times. Soon, ear trumpets were built into other objects. Ladies favored ear trumpets that could be hidden in hats, scarves, and high collars. Ladies carried folding fans with them in those days and fans with small ear trumpets built in were popular because they could hold the fans up to their faces when they wanted to hear something important.

A breakthrough in ear trumpet design came with the invention of the Hawksley Table Instrument

Six sound collectors called speaking tubes picked up conversation from everyone at the table and piped it to the host. An ancestor of today’s middle-of-the-table speakerphone, it was usually disguised by a floral centerpiece.

What is likely the most famous speaking tube was the acoustic chair

Once designers started putting speaking tubes inside common objects, it wasn’t long until someone adapted an upholstered chair by putting sound catchers in the chair’s hollow arms. Why there? This chair belonged to the hard-of-hearing King John VI of Portugal. Those who wished to speak to him were required to kneel and speak into the holes of the chair arms, a sign of deference to his highness.

And then along came telephones 

Telephones were microphones, speakers, and several other bits powered by electricity. An electrical engineer named Miller Hutchison found a way to use the new technology in hearing aids. His Akouphone was the first hearing aid to amplify the sounds it collected. It was a bulky, heavy tabletop machine powered by a large battery, and more movable than portable. From there, hearing aid electronics evolved through the use of vacuum tubes, transistors, and microprocessors. Each step required less battery power, generated less heat, and got ever-smaller until the hard of hearing could put a complete computerized hearing aid inside their ear.

The next big advance came when hearing aids not only produced louder sounds, but also filtered out unwanted noise. Another big improvement came when hearing aids gained the ability to be customized for any individual’s needs. 

Now hearing aids connect with smartphones

Today’s hearing aids are fully connected to smart devices that do everything your smartphone does, including tracking your health. Wearers can make and take calls and stream music and podcasts directly through their hearing aid(s).

Today’s over the-counter hearing aids cost hundreds of dollars

The same hearing aids cost thousands of dollars when you purchase them through doctors and audiologists. Part of the difference in cost is that doctors and audiologists are also measuring your ears, testing your hearing, fitting your device properly, and tuning it to deliver maximum sound with minimum noise. Some people use on-line tests and smartphone apps in place of doctor visits.

The key to better hearing is to get fitted properly

You want to get the size and shape that best fits the contours of your ear, not someone else’s. If your OTC hearing aid says one size fits all, you can depend upon it not fitting you properly. And if it doesn’t fit you properly, you’ll quit wearing it. 

To get maximum performance from your hearing aid, it needs to be tuned

Properly tuning your device to sync with your situations and lifestyle makes a huge difference. Keep in mind that hearing declines over time, so hearing aids need to be adjusted regularly.

Things people buying their first hearing aid need to know

  • It takes most people several weeks to fully adjust to wearing hearing aids.
  • Return rates are twice as high for OTC hearing aids than they are for those fitted and tuned by hearing specialists.
  • Our ability to hear fades away so gradually that most of us don’t recognize it’s happening.
  • One in five Americans has hearing problems of some sort and the rate increases as we grow older. 
  • When we reach our 70th birthdays, two out of three of us have difficulty hearing. 
  • Among older folks who need hearing aids, only about one in three use them. 
  • Scientists tell us that people who have difficulty hearing are at a higher risk for loneliness, depression, and dementia.

Bonus

Anyone who has called in remotely to a meeting room full of people can tell you about not being able to filter out the clacking of keyboards, people coughing, chairs scraping, phones ringing, ballpoint pens clicking, group members having side conversations, and more. Noises like these make it difficult to understand what the speaker is saying. Make sure the hearing aids you buy filter out the distractions that annoy you.

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