09 July 2009
The invention: Miniaturized electronic amplifier worn inside the ears of hearing-impaired persons. The organization behind the invention: Bell Labs, the research and development arm of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company Trapped in Silence Until the middle of the twentieth century, people who experienced hearing loss had little hope of being able to hear sounds without the use of large, awkward, heavy appliances. For many years, the only hearing aids available were devices known as ear trumpets. The ear trumpet tried to compensate for hearing loss by increasing the number of sound waves funneled into the ear canal. A wide, bell-like mouth similar to the bell of a musical trumpet narrowed to a tube that the user placed in his or her ear. Ear trumpets helped a little, but they could not truly increase the volume of the sounds heard. Beginning in the nineteenth century, inventors tried to develop electrical devices that would serve as hearing aids. The telephone was actually a by-product of Alexander Graham Bell’s efforts to make a hearing aid. Following the invention of the telephone, electrical engineers designed hearing aids that employed telephone technology, but those hearing aids were only a slight improvement over the old ear trumpets. They required large, heavy battery packs and used a carbon microphone similar to the receiver in a telephone. More sensitive than purely physical devices such as the ear trumpet, they could transmit a wider range of sounds but could not amplify them as effectively as electronic hearing aids now do. Transistors Make Miniaturization Possible Two types of hearing aids exist: body-worn and head-worn. Body-worn hearing aids permit the widest range of sounds to be heard, but because of the devices’ larger size, many hearing impaired persons do not like to wear them. Head-worn hearing aids, especially those worn completely in the ear, are much less conspicuous. In addition to in-ear aids, the category of head-worn hearing aids includes both hearing aids mounted in eyeglass frames and those worn behind the ear. All hearing aids, whether head-worn or body-worn, consist of four parts: a microphone to pick up sounds, an amplifier, a receiver, and a power source. The microphone gathers sound waves and converts them to electrical signals; the amplifier boosts, or increases, those signals; and the receiver then converts the signals back into sound waves. In effect, the hearing aid is a miniature radio. After the receiver converts the signals back to sound waves, those waves are directed into the ear canal through an earpiece or ear mold. The ear mold generally is made of plastic and is custom fitted from an impression taken from the prospective user’s ear. Effective head-worn hearing aids could not be built until the electronic circuit was developed in the early 1950’s. The same invention— the transistor—that led to small portable radios and tape players allowed engineers to create miniaturized, inconspicuous hearing aids. Depending on the degree of amplification required, the amplifier in a hearing aid contains three or more transistors. Transistors first replaced vacuum tubes in devices such as radios and phonographs, and then engineers realized that they could be used in devices for the hearing-impaired. The research at Bell Labs that led to the invention of the transistor rose out of military research duringWorldWar II. The vacuum tubes used in, for example, radar installations to amplify the strength of electronic signals were big, were fragile because they were made of blown glass, and gave off high levels of heat when they were used. Transistors, however, made it possible to build solid-state, integrated circuits. These are made from crystals of metals such as germanium or arsenic alloys and therefore are much less fragile than glass. They are also extremely small (in fact, some integrated circuits are barely visible to the naked eye) and give off no heat during use. The number of transistors in a hearing aid varies depending upon the amount of amplification required. The first transistor is the most important for the listener in terms of the quality of sound heard. If the frequency response is set too high—that is, if the device is too sensitive—the listener will be bothered by distracting background noise. Theoretically, there is no limit on the amount of amplification that a hearing aid can be designed to provide, but there are practical limits. The higher the amplification, the more power is required to operate the hearing aid. This is why body-worn hearing aids can convey a wider range of sounds than head-worn devices can. It is the power source—not the electronic components—that is the limiting factor. A body-worn hearing aid includes a larger battery pack than can be used with a head-worn device. Indeed, despite advances in battery technology, the power requirements of a head-worn hearing aid are such that a 1.4-volt battery that could power a wristwatch for several years will last only a few days in a hearing aid. Consequences The invention of the electronic hearing aid made it possible for many hearing-impaired persons to participate in a hearing world. Prior to the invention of the hearing aid, hearing-impaired children often were unable to participate in routine school activities or function effectively in mainstream society. Instead of being able to live at home with their families and enjoy the same experiences that were available to other children their age, often they were forced to attend special schools operated by the state or by charities. Hearing-impaired people were singled out as being different and were limited in their choice of occupations. Although not every hearing-impaired person can be helped to hear with a hearing aid— particularly in cases of total hearing loss—the electronic hearing aid has ended restrictions for many hearing-impaired people. Hearingimpaired children are now included in public school classes, and hearing-impaired adults can now pursue occupations from which they were once excluded. Today, many deaf and hearing-impaired persons have chosen to live without the help of a hearing aid. They believe that they are not disabled but simply different, and they point out that their “disability” often allows them to appreciate and participate in life in unique and positive ways. For them, the use of hearing aids is a choice, not a necessity. For those who choose, hearing aids make it possible to participate in the hearing world.