Deaf: Cultures and Communication, 1600 to the Present


For centuries, people have used technologies to improve their hearing. Hearing trumpets, for example, amplified sound for people with some residual hearing. Transistors allowed for small, powerful hearing aids in the mid-twentieth century, which are now being replaced with digital models. Other scientists and physicians have experimented with electricity’s role in hearing and deafness. In 1748, Benjamin Wilson, an English natural philosopher, tried applying an electric current to the head of Mary Smargins, a young woman with substantial hearing loss, who reported warmth and a strange twitching sensation in her ears. Her hearing supposedly improved after repeated treatments. 

Cochlear implants emerged in the 1960s and 70s and send sound in the form of electrical signals straight to the auditory nerve system. They are extremely controversial: some Deaf activists have likened this attempt to “cure” Deafness—which they see as a cultural identity—to genocide. Cochlear implants, however, must be accompanied by extensive therapy, and some wearers continue to use sign language. 

Cochlear implants do not provide exact replications of sounds; users sometimes describe what they hear as electronic, robotic, or "tinny."

"Curing the Deaf by Electricity"

Inventors have developed dozens of electrical devices for people with hearing loss, though many have achieved only limited popularity. Tactile hearing aids, for example, are portable appliances that convert sound to vibrations or electric signals, which are then felt on the skin. Cochlear implants, which are worn by over 300,000 people worldwide, have been much more popular, although they can be prohibitively expensive. They stimulate an array of electrodes inserted into the cochlea, which then send impulses to the auditory nervous system.

The American Armamentarium Chirurgicum

George Tiemann & Co., founded in 1826 and still in operation today, is a New York-based surgical instrument maker. This page from the company’s 1889 catalogue shows hearing trumpets, also known as ear trumpets, designed for a variety of purposes. Many upper-class users of hearing trumpets favored ornate appliances, with gold, silver, or mother-of-pearl trim, while other users preferred unobtrusive devices that could be concealed in walking sticks, for example, or under their hair.



"Listen and You Shall Hear"

The first electrical hearing aids were heavy and bulky. One of the first brands, the “Akoulalion,” was invented by the electrical engineer Miller Reese Hutchinson (1876-1944) and later sold in a smaller, cheaper form called the “Acousticon.” Essentially a compact, self-enclosed telephone, the Akoulalion was an extension of A.G. Bell’s earlier work on sound, picking up noises and retransmitting them through headphones.

The Mears Ear Phone, first patented in 1905, was similar to the Acousticon. Within seven years the company had already sold over 15,000. Though they supposedly brought “perfect hearing to the deaf,” they remained heavy and expensive and had only limited amplifying power. Vacuum tube hearing aids such as the Vactuphone, which went on the market in 1921, were slightly more effective, but they could not compete with mid-twentieth-century transistor hearing aids. 

"How Benjamin Franklin Helped Bring Better Hearing to Modern Americans"

This address, broadcast on NBC on April 29, 1944, was an extended advertisement for the Zenith Radio Corporation, an electronics company that also manufactured hearing aids. The speaker, writer and hearing aid wearer Rupert Hughes (MA Yale 1899), claimed that—thanks to American free enterprise—hearing aids were now available for a fraction of the price of older models, allowing for full participation in work, education, and social life. “And so,” he wrote, “Ben Franklin and the kite he flew have added one more release from hardship and handicap, a new release into almost angelic freedom and energy and superhuman power.”


"Evidence: Our Improved Medicated Ear Drum DOES Make Deaf People Hear"

Prosthetic eardrums had been used since at least the seventeenth century and continued to be sold well into the twentieth. American George P. Way was rendered hard of hearing by typhoid fever, but he claimed that one day he put a tuft of cotton in his ear and found himself able to hear again. While Way patented the first models of his artificial eardrum in 1899 and 1906, his wife, Frances, was responsible for the 1908 patent on the “medicated” model, which included a special substance to reduce inflammation. A pair of eardrums, along with medicine and tools for inserting and removing the appliances, cost $5. This brochure features testimonials in support of Way’s product and his personal character, a common advertising technique among medical entrepreneurs. 

Acknowledgement: Jaipreet Virdi-Dhesi
(see "Sources" section)