Sometime in the 1950s, an elderly lady who had been profoundly deaf for many years, was fitted with one of the newfangled transistorised hearing-aids.
She found the machine rather ugly, but it was fairly small, and with the advice of the nurse at the clinic, she managed to hide it successfully. She wore the amplifier on her chest, hidden behind a scarf, the batteries were in a pouch under her skirt, and the earpiece and wire were easily concealed under her hair.
A week later she returned to the clinic for a check up. “It’s wonderful,” she told the doctor. “Absolutely wonderful! I can hear everything now.”
“And are your family pleased?” asked the doctor.
“Oh,” she said, “I haven’t told any of them yet. That’s why I’ve had to change my will twice already.”
Hairy old yarn, that one. It’s often told as a true story, or claimed to have been a tale related by a doctor in the correspondence pages of a medical journal or newspaper.
In the past, those born deaf, or who lost their hearing at a relatively young age could try to lip-read or learn a sign language. The Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée (1712-1789) developed the first formal sign language when he found deaf people signing to one another in the slums of Paris.
Until the mid-20th century, the best technological option for people losing their hearing was an ear-trumpet, a conical tube held to the ear with the wide end pointed in the direction of whoever was speaking. These had probably existed since the 1600s, and elderly people with ear-trumpets were a stock figure of cruel fun in popular entertainment well into the 20th century.
The first electrical hearing aids came in during the 1920s. One of the pioneers of this new technology was physicist and acoustics expert Harvey Fletcher (1884-1981), whose other major contribution was the development of stereophonic sound recording. One of the very first users of Fletcher’s vacuum-tube hearing aids was Thomas Edison (1847-1831).
He later told Fletcher how he was always being invited to dinners as a celebrity guest: “When I used to attend these dinners I sat in silence wondering what the after-dinner speaker was saying and wishing I could hear him, but I was content to turn my thoughts toward some of my inventions. But now with the hearing aid I can hear and understand the speaker but usually find it so dull I turn it off and turn my thought to my inventions.”
These early hearing aids were large, quite cumbersome and expensive, while the story above probably relates to the smaller and cheaper transistor-based aids which appeared in the 1950s.