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History of Hearing Aids

From Bulky to Invisible

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Updated February 20, 2011

Somewhere up in the attic, there is something that really belongs in a museum. What is it? It is my old body-worn hearing aid from early childhood. Body aids were already on their way out at the time that I had to wear them. However, when I was, a child hearing aid technology had not yet advanced enough for profoundly deaf children to be able to wear behind-the-ear aids.

Hearing Aid Progress

Hearing aids began crudely as large trumpets and horns, which evolved into still bulky and uncomfortable transistor radio-style devices. Next, they became smaller behind-the-ear devices (BTEs), still available today. Then they shrank again, becoming in-the-ear and in-the-canal devices. Some modern hearing aids are even implantable and therefore invisible.

Attitudes Towards Hearing Aids

Hearing aids have been around for decades, yet they were given a bad rap from the very start. Instead of being viewed as the useful devices they were meant to be, they became the butt of jokes. In some of my old Little Lotta comic books from the sixties and seventies, Little Lotta's grandfather uses a horn-shaped trumpet style hearing aid and keeps saying "what?"

Today's modern hearing aids get more respect -- or do they? I still hear of many hard of hearing older people refusing to try hearing aids because they don't want to "look old" or "feel old." They deny their hearing loss even though today's hearing aids are so small you can not see them.

Preserving Hearing Aid History

Some hearing aid manufacturers have recognized the importance of preserving hearing aid history. For example, Oticon has an Eriksholm Museum in Denmark for showcasing old hearing aids. The museum has the trumpet-style hearing aids, a transitor style hearing aid (like the body aids that I wore as a child), and early behind-the-ear aids.

In addition, in New York City, you can visit the hearing aid museum at the Center for Hearing and Communication (CHC). More than 50 hearing aids from the 1880s to the 1980s are showcased at the CHC. The decorated silver ear trumpet is particularly fascinating.

Plus, the John Q. Adams Center of the American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery in Alexandria, Virginia has a collection of antique hearing aids.

Online Hearing Aid Museums

For those who can not visit a physical hearing aid museum, there are online hearing aid museums that you can check out. Here are some of them:
  • Deafness in Disguise - Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri has a lavishly illustrated and detailed tour of hearing aid devices in the 19th and 20th centuries. It includes fascinating information such as the use of hearing chairs -- chairs that were rigged to conceal hearing assistance equipment.
  • Hugh Heatherington Online Hearing Aid Museum - This online hearing aid museum is divided into categories and subcategories. Details are provided about each instrument, along with large pictures.
  • Kent State University in Kent, Ohio claims to have the largest hearing aid collection in the world. All of their hearing aids came to them through donations. The collection's online gallery is divided into categories, with small pictures of each hearing aid type. Limited descriptions are provided.

If you have an old hearing aid (or one of the very first cochlear implants) that is too old to be of interest to any hearing aid banks, you might want to consider donating it to one of the existing hearing aid museums.

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