by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
I’ve had a number of people ask me concerning a portion of an “outtake” of a 1928 Charlie Chaplin movie—wondering whether what was being shown was a time traveler using a modern cell phone back in 1928, or whether it was, more realistically, a person using an old hearing aid.
For example, a man commented,
Please take a second to look at this video taken from the 1928 premier of a Charlie Chaplin film. I’m of the opinion this may be an old type of hearing aid.
A woman, who knows I own The Hearing Aid Museum, wondered much the same thing. She wrote,
This short video has been going around the internet. Do you think the device in her hand could be one of your antique hearing aids? I’m guessing the young man is just trying to garner publicity for his films, but I am curious!
A newspaper reporter, concerning this same video, wrote,
I would very much appreciate the opportunity to speak to you about the Western Electric 34A Carbon Hearing Aid manufactured in 1925, and whether it could be the device held in this video clip.
Another man explained,
I just watched an old clip on Youtube.com from the Charlie Chaplin movie ‘The Circus’ from 1928. The video shows a woman walking on a sidewalk, and remarkably, she appears to be talking on a cell phone! At one point in the video, the film zooms in, and slows down, and she appears to be having a conversation. One person suggested that the device she is holding might be a hearing aid—in fact, even suggested it was a 1924 Siemens hearing aid. I can’t fathom one’s ability to decipher the video that clearly. I am curious to know what you think about this video.
This is an interesting video to be sure. I’m glad no one’s first thoughts were that this must be a time traveler talking on a cell phone. All the above people tried to come up with logical explanations—and the obvious explanation that came to their minds was that this lady was using an old hearing aid.
Is this a possibility or not? Let’s investigate.
There were three basic types of hearing aids in use in 1928: ear trumpets, carbon hearing aids and the new-fangled vacuum-tube hearing aids that had appeared on the market beginning in 1921.
After carefully watching this video numerous times, looking at exactly how this lady positions her hand and fingers and observing how much/little of the object is visible, here is what I think of the various hearing aid possibilities.
A. Ear Trumpets
It is possible that this lady is using a small to medium-sized London Dome ear trumpet—but her hand shape and position doesn’t really fit the shape of a London Dome ear trumpet. However, it seems to better fit the shape of a flattened ear trumpet such as this larger ladies ear trumpet. This is the most viable possibility.
B. Carbon Hearing Aids
The second possibility is that she was using a carbon hearing aid. Two people even suggested specific models of carbon hearing aids as being the hearing aid she was using—a Siemens 1924 model, or a Western Electric Model 34A of 1925.
Siemens hearing aids of that day looked similar to this Siemens Model A-22 double carbon microphone hearing aid. The person wore the big double carbon microphone around their neck on a ribbon or lanyard, attached to a button on their coat/shirt, or used it in its lunch-box-sized carrying case. The earpiece (receiver and stock ear mold) had a wire “hook” that held the receiver to the person’s ear. Thus a person did not need to hold anything.
Note this well—a person never held the rectangular-shaped microphone to their ear! The microphone was for talking into, not listening out of. Thus, no one would hold this hearing aid to their ear the way this woman is apparently doing.
The Western Electric Model 34A had a similar earpiece (receiver and ear mold) to the Siemens aid, but rather than being worn on a lanyard, or coming in a lunch-box-sized wooden box, the Western Electric microphone and batteries were contained in a large black metal case.
Again, a person would never hold the microphone case up to their ear. They heard via the receiver and ear mold. Besides, the metal case was much bigger than whatever it is the woman is actually holding. If she had been holding the Western Electric Model 34A case, it would have stuck out some inches ahead of, and behind, her hand, and her fingers would be too short to grip it like the video shows she is. Thus, neither of these carbon hearing aids fit the bill.
It is also possible that instead of a receiver and ear mold, the hearing aid she is wearing used a big earphone, perhaps similar to the earphone used by the Acousticon Model SRB carbon hearing aid.
In this scenario, she would need to hold this earphone to her ear with her hand rather than wearing it the normal way with a headband holding it in place, or holding it by it’s optional lorgnette-style handle.
Even so, this scenario doesn’t seem likely because the earphone is obviously quite a bit smaller and thinner than whatever this lady is holding as evidenced by the position of her fingers. If she was holding an earphone, her finger arrangement would have been very different.
C. Vacuum Tube Hearing Aids
In 1928, vacuum tube hearing aids were still big lunch-box-sized affairs, similar to this 1921 Vactuphone hearing aid. You didn’t hold these hearing aids up to your ears either—they sat on the table facing the person speaking. Furthermore, these hearing aids weighed several pounds.
Thus, if this woman is really using a hearing aid, I suggest it was a flattened ear trumpet kind of aid. Note, however, that people didn’t normally walk around when they were using an ear trumpet. The “wore” them when they wanted to talk with someone, then put it back in their purse or pocket. Thus, the possibility that this woman is using an old ear trumpet style of hearing aid is rather slim.
Who says this has to be a hearing aid in the first place? It could be something totally unrelated. For example, perhaps she has an earache, or her ear is bleeding, and she is holding a bag of ice to her ear while she hurries to the doctor.
Furthermore, is she really talking to someone else as she walks? Maybe she is talking to herself. Maybe she is chewing gum or sucking on a candy?
Unfortunately, the pictures are too blurry/grainy, distant and taken from the wrong angle to let me clearly see what she really is holding. The possibilities are many, but it is highly unlikely that whatever she is holding is any kind of hearing aid.
Finally, you don’t have to worry that supposed time travelers used cell phones back then. There weren’t any cell towers in 1928 for them to use, so cell phones wouldn’t have worked anyway.