by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
Quick. In what year was the first electric hearing aid was made? Take a guess. Bet you’ll be surprised how far off your guess was.
Non-electric hearing aids such as primitive hearing horns have been around for many hundreds of years. In contrast, electric (and electronic) hearing aids are of relatively recent origin. However, unless you guessed a time before the turn of the last century, electric hearing aids have been around for a lot longer than you likely thought.
The first US patent for an electric hearing aid was applied for way back in 1892 by Alonzo Miltimore of Catskill, N.Y. His patent was for a “magneto telephone for personal wear”. Even though he applied for the first electric hearing aid patent, in seems that he never actually manufactured this hearing aid. (1)
In contrast, the first public use of an electric aid was that of a simple telephone arrangement by Bertram Thornton of England in 1896. (1) This device was more of a telephone than a real hearing aid.
However, things began to roll in 1899. In this year, the US patent office issued a patent to Frank Collins of Everett, MA for a “Magneto Earphone”, (1) but he failed to actually manufacture this hearing aid.
It also issued two hearing aid patents to Miller Reese Hutchinson that same year. In 1898 (or at the latest 1899), Hutchinson and James H. Wilson established the Akouphone Company in Alabama. It was probably the first company specifically formed to manufacture hearing aids. Thus, the honor of producing the first electric carbon hearing aid to actually see production goes to Miller Reese Hutchinson. (1)
This first hearing aid went by the strange name of the “Akoulallion”. Hutchinson derived this name from two Greek verbs meaning “to hear” and “to speak”.
The Akoulallion,was so large it sat on a table. The basic model cost a whopping $400.00 in 1899. That would be equivalent to $11,428.00 today! (2) No wonder it only sold in limited numbers!
The earliest known published reference to the Akoulallion was in Success, May 13, 1899 in an article titled “A Miracle of Science”. The first Akoulallion went on sale in December 1899. (2)
Hutchinson then redesigned the Akoulallion to make it smaller. Even so, it still weighed a whopping 3.5 pounds including the 6 volt storage battery. The battery and other hearing aid components all fit in a rubber case. (2) The result was the portable Akouphone hearing aid that went on sale in 1900 for the more modest sum of $60.00 ($1,760.00 in today’s dollars).
Hutchinson’s third hearing aid became the first practical carbon (electric) hearing aid. Named the Acousticon 1, it came out in 1902. (3) Thus began the venerable line of hearing aids sold under the Acousticon name that continued up until around 1980.
The Acousticon 1 looked similar to this slightly modified Acousticon Model A of 1905 (pictured at left) except that it had a lorgnette handle instead of a headphone band for holding it in place. It consisted of just three parts—a microphone (right), an earphone (top) and a battery (left) with electrical cords connecting them together.
Note: Many of the early electric hearing devices were called electric aids, then telephone aids or tele-microphone aids, and later, carbon aids. For some time, the generic name used for non-electric and carbon devices of this nature was “audiphone”, although the term “audicle” was also used. (4)
Carbon hearing aids eventually became “old” technology with the invention of the triode vacuum tube.
In October,1921, the Globe Phone Mfg. Co. of Reading, MA came out with the world’s first commercially-produced vacuum tube hearing aid, the Globe Vactuphone. (The name was a contraction of the words VACuum TUbe telePHONE.) This hearing aid used a single peanut vacuum tube. It was the size of a lunch box and weighed about 7 pounds. It cost the princely sum of $135.00 back then (about $1776.00 in today’s dollars).
The Globe Vactuphone we have in the Hearing Aid Museum (pictured above) still works even though the tube in it is now 94 years old.
As time went on, vacuum tubes shrank in size and so did their power requirements, thus making it practical to make smaller, wearable hearing aids. Don’t get me wrong. These weren’t small hearing aids by any means. Although we call these hearing aids “wearable”, this just meant they fit into a large suit-jacket pocket, not a shirt pocket! In addition, they required external battery packs. Thus they were still quite unwieldy.
The honor of producing the first wearable vacuum tube hearing aid goes to Amplivox of Wembley, England. Their model “P” came out in September, 1935. It contained 2 vacuum tubes and used two (external) batteries. Such hearing aids were called two-piece hearing aids since the batteries were separate from the hearing aid itself. It weighed 2.5 pounds.
Two years later, in 1937, after vacuum tubes and batteries had shrunk even more, Vernon-Spencer of London, England, came out with the first one-piece wearable vacuum tube hearing aid. This meant the batteries were contained inside the hearing aid case. Interestingly enough, their Model VS1 (VS1 stood for Vernon-Spencer 1) 3-vacuum tube aid was the only hearing aid they ever produced.
It was at this time that the first hearing aids with t-coils came out. The first hearing aid with a t-coil was manufactured by the National Electrical Research and Mfg. Co. of Washington, DC in 1936. Their Tel-Audio model was a table-top vacuum tube unit that used A/C power. Even though it was a table-top model, the t-coil was still so large that it had its own separate case. A wire from the t-coil plugged into the hearing aid box.
Fortunately, technology continued to advance and shrink hearing aid components. Just 2 years later, in 1938, the Multitone Electric Co, Ltd. of London, England came out with the first wearable hearing aid that contained a t-coil. This was the Multitone Model VPM. (VPM stood for Vest Pocket Model.) Sure, it fit in a vest pocket–with no room to spare I might add, but it was still a 2-piece hearing aid and the batteries needed to be placed in a large jacket pocket. Pictured here is the Multitone VPM without the batteries.
Up to now, hearing aids had used either carbon-zinc batteries or in rare cases, lead-acid batteries. But in 1946 Beltone Electronics Corp. of Chicago IL became the first hearing aid company to use a mercury battery in their one-piece “Harmony” vacuum-tube hearing aid.
Note: Vacuum tube hearing aids required two batteries. The 1.5 volt “A” battery powered the vacuum tube filaments while the high voltage (15 – 45 volts) “B” battery powered the plate circuit. Typically hearing aids ran through 2 or 3 “A” batteries to one “B” battery.
Mercury batteries only produced 1.4 volts, but their big advantage was that they lasted much longer than carbon-zinc batteries. The RM-4 mercury battery used in the Beltone “Harmony” was the largest “button” battery used in hearing aids. It measured a whopping 1 3/16″ in diameter and 5/8″ thick—humongous by today’s standards! Compare the size of the No. 13 [orange tab] battery used by many of today’s hearing aids (left) to the RM-4 battery (right).
Up to now hearing aids used discrete components laboriously soldered together by hand. Advancing technology had produced printed circuit boards where the wires were etched on a phenolic board. The components were then soldered to these pre-existing “wires” (called traces). The first hearing aid to incorporate this new-fangled technology was the Solo-Pak Model 99 3-vacuum tube one-piece hearing aid first put out in October, 1947. The Solo-Pak Electronics Corp was located in Peabody, MA.
Vacuum tube hearing aids enjoyed immense popularity right up to the end of 1952, but then something momentous occurred that doomed them to oblivion. By the beginning of 1954 hardly any hearing aids ever used vacuum tubes again.
The momentous occasion occurred in December, 1952 when the first hearing aid to contain a transistor came out. Of special note: this hearing aid was the first commercial application for the transistor—invented by Bell Labs in 1948—even before they were used in radios.
The honor of producing the first hearing aid containing a transistor goes to Sonotone International, Inc. of Ossining, NY. Their Sonotone model 1010, a hybrid containing 2 vacuum tubes and 1 transistor came out on December 29, 1952 (pictured here).
Only a few days later, on January 9, 1953, Maico Electronics, Inc. of Minneapolis, MN came out with the world’s first all transistor hearing aid. This was the Maico model “O” (“Transist-Ear”), a 3-transistor hearing aid (pictured below).
Maico could have been the first to produce a hearing aid using a transistor. They had their model “O” all-transistor aid ready for production in late 1952, but decided to do more testing before releasing it to the public. Imagine their shock and dismay, when, on December 29, 1952, Sonotone surprised them and came out with its hybrid Sonotone Model 1010 hearing aid.
Maico decided to immediately end all testing and start production on their all-transistor hearing aid which they did in early January, 1953. Thus Maico holds the honor of bringing out the world’s first all-transistor commercially-available hearing aid.
Now that transistors had made vacuum tube hearing aids obsolete, hearing aids could be made much smaller. There were two reasons for this. First, transistors were much smaller than even the smallest vacuum tubes. Second, transistors didn’t need high voltages so they no longer needed the large “B” batteries that vacuum tube hearing aids required.
As a result, hearing aid manufacturers soon began miniaturizing hearing aids. This paved the way for both behind-the-ear and eyeglass hearing aids.
As hard as it is to believe, the very first eyeglass hearing aid contained 2 vacuum tubes and one transistor, plus an “A” and “B” battery. This bone-conduction eyeglass hearing aid was made by Akumed MBH of Munich, Germany. It came out in 1954. It was just plain awkward–you couldn’t even fold the temple-pieces.
However, that didn’t stop other companies from attempting to make something better. A few months later, Otarion Electronics, Inc. of Chicago, IL introduced the first commercially-successful eyeglass hearing aid, the 3-transistor model L10 (Listener) eyeglass hearing aid, on December 9, 1954 (pictured here).
The L10 Listener used both thick temple pieces in order to house all the electronics–half in each temple-piece with a wire connecting both sides. Since the microphone was on one side and the receiver on the other, unintentionally, this also became the first CROS (contralateral routing of signal) aid used for people with one normal hearing ear and one deaf ear.
By the next year, Audiotone, Inc. of Phoenix, AZ had shrunk the electronics enough that all the parts could fit in one temple-piece. The Audiotone model G-2 “Hearing Glasses” came out in 1955. This eyeglass hearing aid had an external receiver. Another peculiarity of this hearing aid was that the dummy temple-piece was thinner than the hearing aid side. All other eyeglass hearing aids had the dummy side looking the same as the hearing aid side.
The first eyeglass hearing aid with a built-in t-coil was the Otarion model L21 “Listener” that came out in 1957. The volume control was in one temple-piece and the switch for the t-coil in the other one.
In June of 1955 Sonotone International, Inc. of Ossining, NY produced the world’s first behind the ear (BTE) hearing aid. Their 3-transistor model 79 used a No. 625 button battery–somewhat larger than a 675 battery used today. The receiver was external–just like with the body worn hearing aids still in use at this time (pictured here).
While Sonotone was busy producing the first BTE hearing aid in June, 1955, Dahlberg Electronics, Inc. of Minneapolis, MN had the honor of producing the first in-the-ear (ITE) aid that same month.
This first ITE hearing aid was nothing like the tiny ITE aids of today. It was more properly an at-the-ear aid as it was much too big to fit in the ear. Dahlberg named it the “Miracle Ear”, their model D-10.
As technology progressed, integrated circuits made their appearance. Zenith Radio Corp. of Chicago, IL. made the world’s first hearing aid containing an integrated circuit. This was their Zenith Arcadia behind-the-ear model that came out in 1964.
Fast forward a few years to 1987. That year, Nicolet Instrument Corp. of Madison, WI produced the first digital hearing aid, the Nicolet “Phoenix”. It was a humongous contraption with a BTE component as well as a body-worn digital processor. Since people were used to wearing small BTE and ITE aids by that time, this huge contraption basically ended up being nothing more than a hearing aid novelty.
Digitally-programmable analog hearing aids were an intermediate step towards fully digital hearing aids. Widex (Toepholm & Westermann A/S) of Copenhagen, Denmark came out with their Quattro Q-8, a digitally-programmable hearing aid in 1988 (pictured here at left). This hearing aid had a remote control.
Following hard on its heels that same year was Oticon A/S, also of Copenhagen, Denmark with their BTE & ITE DigiFocus digital hearing aids. Since then, almost all hearing aids have been digital aids (pictured left below.)
So there you have it—a number of firsts from the first electric hearing aids until the first completely digital hearing aids hit the market.
(1) Berger, Kenneth W., 1984, The Hearing Aid It’s Operation and Development. The National Hearing Aid Society. p. 53.
(2) ibid. p. 54.
(3) ibid. p. 55.
(4) ibid. p. 52.