Ear Trumpet

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Speaking Trumpet

Elizabeth Bennion aptly declares the following to open her book Antique Hearing Devices,
“There are three points to be effected in order to aid inadequacy in hearing. Firstly, the distance between speaker and hearer can be reduced. Secondly, the speaker can increase the sound, either by speaking more loudly or by using some mechanical means such a s a megaphone or microphone. Thirdly, an artificial means can be found to collect more of the sound energy and direct it more efficiently into the auditory canal, or to introduce the vibrations of sound directly into the skull(Bennion 1).”
The first of the methods Bennion introduces to deal with audio inadequacy requires no medium to implement and in fact cannot entertain the use of a medium. The second is the first of her method which would merit an invention in the scheme of human development. The first textual record of a such a device appears in Homer's The Iliad around 850 B.C.which describes a large bronze trumpet designed to amplify the voice. Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) was also known to use a speaking horn mounted on a tripod to gather his huntsmen when they were at a great distance.(Berger 12)

The third method describes a heightening of the sound on the receivers end. So why is it that speaking trumpets were used widely and constructed with such high suffistication hundreds of years before the birth of christ, but ear trumpets would not be popularized and widely manufactured until the 16th century?

Deafness and Disability: Cultural Conceptions

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Throne of King Goa VI, A Speaking Tube

To find the answer for this question one has to explore the cultural perceptions of the disabled in a historical context. Before the 16th century the deaf were considered invalid and unteachable. It wasn't until Spaniard Pedro De Ponce (1520-1584)taught pupils to speak, read, and write that the deaf would even be considered worthwhile of assisting.(Bennion 4) Additionally, life expectancy was much shorter and elderly becoming hard of hearing was far less common than it is in the present. Even with some progress in accommodating the needs of the disabled, we must remember that the world during the time that the ear trumpet and other non-electric hearing devices were popular was far from the world of today. Disability was still looked down upon and often considered ungodly. For this reason, ear trumpets and speaking tubes, necessarily cumbersome in construction, were often disguised and masked. Pictured is the throne of Spanish King Goa VI, fashioned by the British firm R.C. Rein & Son, who was hard of hearing. Courtiers were intended to kneel and speak into the mouthpieces located in the arms of the chair and the king would listen to an earpieces which connected to the tube.

The Ear Trumpet Design and Innovation

Its important to note that the very first most primitave version of the ear trumpet has probably been existence since the beginning of man. The first version, is the simple act of cupping your hand to your ear. Whereas later hearing aid technologies would use resonance to increase the sound energy itself, this is conceptually the same technology that ear trumpets use to amplify sound. The hand cupped over the ear can amplify sound 5-10 decibels, an ear trumpet is able to amplify it 15-20 decibels.(Bennion 1)

In his Magia Naturalis, Porta calls his trumpet a trunk and describes it as a "pipe" fashioned ideally out of lead.(Porta Ch.XII) However, Porta does not describe a conic quality to his trunk which would be crucial to the effectiveness of a ear trumpet. Additionally, Porta reveals some misconceptions he has about sound, in that he thinks he would be able to capture it in the pipe until a later date. This leads me to beleive that Porta, who compiled much of his Magia Naturalis, didn't in fact own or have access to an actual instrument.

Athansius Kircher described in his Phonurgia Nova the Dome of Dionysius. The Dome of Dionysius was ancient prison in which ear trumpet technology manifested itself architectually. The conversations of prisoners who were held in chambers below could be eavesdropped and escape plans and other information could be attained by prison guards(Bennion 3). This implementation of the technology is unique because of its intended use, spying, which vastly differs from prior uses. Remediations of this tradition of spying could be found in telephone tapping. Another key element is the fact that the sound is alienated from its source. In prior examples, calling in huntsmen or subsequent examples of hearing aids, this alienation doesn't exist. It is perhaps, a factor that readies the world for completely alienated communication like telephones.

Kircher also described trumpets which were spiral in shape. Due to his misconception that sound like light traveled in straight rays, he thought that this design would help the sound reflect into the ear(Zielinski 129)

Perhaps Kircher's most important illustration depicts the Ellipsis Otica. This is the first graphic representation of a hearing aid device. The hearing aid is a huge ellipses with an opening at each end allowing the users to take turns talking and speaking.

The Ear Trumpet: It's Height of Popularity

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Conch Ear Trumpet

In many early texts it is often very unclear whether writers are referring to speaking trumpets or ear trumpets. In some ways its of little importance which these writers were referring to because the design of the invention is parallel quite some time. This factor highlights the fact that when the ear trumpet finally did break off, most changes to the ear trumpet were aesthetic and not functional. Many ear trumpets, although impractically, were fashioned out of gold and silver. Even if in slightly different spirit, I would assert that this was an early instance of a communication medium, as fashion accessory, which can now be compared to things like the ipod.

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Ear Trumpet

Ear trumpets were widely used from the 17th century until the invention of electric hearing aids. Their were also bone anchored hearing devices which relied on resonating sounds within the skull, but were not nearly as popular do to inconvenience and discomfort. Many ear trumpets were constructed using shells or animal horns. These were objects found in nature which were conducive to resonating sound. Interestingly, some trumpets were fashioned in the shape of animal ears who were known to hear well, for example bats or dogs(Berger 8).

Some ear trumpet users complained about distortion and unpleasent resonance in certain designs which were designed to be very compact and involved a lot of curved tubing. This was an example of when design ruined function, whereas the simple earlier ear trumpets didnt have this problem the new ones did.

Telescoping Ear Trumpet

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Telescoping or Collapsible Ear Trumpet (Curtis 184)
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Slide Trumpet; Early 15th Century

The popularity of the Townsend Telescoping Ear trumpet can be attributed to the fact that it was compact, and easy to conceal. Interestingly, as far back as the early 15th century there is record of a slide trumpet, which uses the same basic principle (pictured right.) Needless to say this is an example of the obvious, using the existing ear trumpet technology with telescoping technology to increase compactness and further conceal disability. If this was not clear enough, Van Etter in his "Recreation Mathematique" entitles his chapter on the device, "How to make an instrument to help hearing, as Galileus made to help the sight?"

The Speaking Tube vs. The Ear Trumpet

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A well known playground remediation of the speaking tube

As Bennion notes "The great advantage of the conversation tube as a type of hearing aid was that it obtained greater enhancement of sound by placing the bell close to the mouth of the speaker thereby allowing for a normal conversational tone…really cut out background noise" Although, this medium seems extremely similar to the ear trumpet, it in fact differs vastly. The question of who is encoding the message has been altered completely. With the Ear trumpet the encoder was not identified, you heard essentially the entire surrounding environment and all of its sounds. The Speaking Tube however, clearly identifies the encoder as the one speaking in to the tube. In turn, the one who is in possession of the speaking end peaking end holds also a position of power over the receiver. One, might be quick to call the ear trumpet, the more democratic or free method of hearing. However, as this cartoon illuminates, it must not be overlooked however that the ear trumpet is not entirely objective. The ear trumpet is also guilty of obscuring true sound, by completely directionalizing hearing.

The Most Universally Used Hearing Aid

Of the Hearing Aid technologies that followed the Ear Trumpet one of the most significant developments was the integration of electricity. Elisabeth Bennion asserts that Alexander Graham Bell was primarily concerned with developing a hearing aid, when he accidentally created the telephone. "He was one of the first to apply electricity to the problems of the deaf and in 1872 he devised a transmitter, receiver and battery system for his deaf mother and an even more powerful device for the woman he was later to marry. These attempts led to the invention of the telephone which must remain one of the most effective aids to hearing at great distance and certainly the most universally used hearing aid of all" The telephone exemplifies a hearing device with the same type of alienation from Kircher's prison illustration.

Works Cited

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Early 21st Century Sony Wireless Headphones w/BlueTooth
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Late 19th Century Wearable Ear Trumpet
  • Bennion, Elisabeth. Antique Hearing Devices. London: Vernier Press, 1994.
  • Berger, Kenneth Walter. The Hearing Aid: Its Operation and Development. Detroit: National Hearing Aid Society, 1970.
  • Curtis, John Harrison. A Treatise on the physiology and pathology of the ear : containing a comparative view of its structure, functions, and various diseases; observations on the derangement of the ganglionic plexus of nerves, as the cause of many obscure diseases of the ear. Together with remarks on the deaf and dumb. 6th ed. London : Longman, 1836.
  • Kircher, Athanasius. Phonurgia Nova. 1673.
  • Porta, Giambattista della. Magia Naturalis. 1558.
  • Stephens, S. D. G., and J. C. Goodwin. "Non-Electric Aids to Hearing: a Short History." International Journal of Audiology 23 (1984): 215-240. InformaWorld. New York University Bobst. 1 Dec. 2007
  • Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006.