Who Invented the Hearing Aid?

nurse holding a hearing aid

The hearing aid is a wonderful piece of technology, improving the hearing of millions living with hearing loss. The National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders estimates that almost 29 million Americans could benefit from using a hearing aid. 

Today, hearing aids are virtually undetectable and are built using the very latest developments in technology. The invention of the first electric hearing aid is credited to Miller Reese Hutchinson in 1898. However, attempts to create devices to compensate for hearing loss date back hundreds of years. 

Ear trumpets

The first attempts at ear trumpets date all the way back to the 13th century. Hollowed out animal horns were used as a hearing device. The technology didn’t improve that much until the 18th century when what we think of as an ear trumpet was invented. 

These devices experimented with different shapes and materials to funnel the sound through the trumpet and into the ear. It seemed that this was going to be the peak of the technology until Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. 

The telephone marked a turning point for hearing aids. Bell had invented a technology that could control the distortion, volume and frequency of the noise. All of these would be needed in an electric hearing aid. 

Carbon hearing aids

Thomas Edison, who himself experienced hearing loss, improved upon the technology even further and invented a transmitter for the telephone that increased the volume by approximately 15 dB.  While this number is too low to improve people’s capacity to hear, it proved that it could be done. 

The first carbon hearing aids used these transmitters. Though a massive improvement on the ear trumpet, their range was limited and the sound quality left a lot to be desired. 

Vacuum tube hearing aids

Vacuum tubes were better able to conduct electricity. The addition of vacuum tubes to hearing aids increased sound levels a great deal, up to 75dB. 

While the sound quality was much improved, the size of the hearing aids proved to be unwieldy. The first vacuum tube hearing aids developed in the 1920s were the size of a medium filing cabinet. By the mid-20s they were able to make the hearing aid fit into something the size of a shoebox. 

In the late 1930s, the technology was refined to the point where it could be truly be considered wearable. Users would have a receiver that could fit inside a pocket and attach it to their clothing. However, the batteries were quite bulky and needed to be strapped to a leg. 

Post-war technology

As with many technologies, the war had the effect of accelerating the evolution of the hearing aid. Miniaturization of the technology made it a viable alternative to the bulky models of the 1920s. When World War II came to an end, the technology existed to allow the hearing aid receiver to fit comfortably in a pocket. No large battery packs to strap to your leg. 

Despite the reduction in size, hearing aids were still conspicuous. They earpiece attached to the receiver via a wire. 


The invention of the transistor marked another turning point. After being invented in 1948 transistors replaced vacuum tubes. These enabled hearing aids to be much smaller and require far less power and experienced less distortion. Hearing aids could now be worn around or inside the ear. 

The digital age

By the beginning of the 21st century, hearing aids became even smaller and the sound quality much better. Hearing aids were now fully digital. 

It hasn’t stopped there either. Hearing aids are using the same technology found in smartphones. Hearing aids can now be customized by audiologists to their patient’s particular needs. They can even connect directly to a user’s TV or smartphone. 

Hearing aids have come such a long way from the hollowing out of animal horns. The ingenuity of Miller Reese Hutchinson in recognizing the potential of Bell’s technology and create the first electric hearing aid, set into motion the evolution of the technology that continues to this day. Audiologists can now customize hearing aids precisely for their patients. 

If you are experiencing hearing loss and would like to talk to the experts about the right hearing aid for you, call Kirsch Audiology today at 310-586-5533.