An 1922 advertisement in The Illustrated London News caught my eye:
Look at the flapper! Is she being coy? Ignoring the gentleman who’s obviously flirting with her? Or is she deaf to his fancy words?
This was the first half of an advert for the “Acoustion,” which claimed it could restore hearing in deaf individuals and improve their lot in hearing culture:
Why…should you be debarred from the pleasures of attending church, theatre, concert or conference? Why, when there is an instrument that will neutralise your deafness, should you be prevented from entering into conversation without difficulty, and listening to music without effort?
The Acousticon was one of the first portable electric hearing aids, the invention of American engineer Miller Reese Hutchison (1876-1944).
He invented the first electrical hearing aid around 1895, called the “Akoulallion” (Greek for “to hear” and “to speak”), a table instrument that was connected to a carbon microphone and earphones—essentially, a “microtelephone.” The device was sold in limited quantities for $400 out of The Akouphone Company, which was established by Hutchinson and James H. Wilson in Mobile, Alabama in 1898/9. In 1901, the Akoulallion is redesigned and sold as the “Akouphone,” at a retail price of $60. The bulky nature of these devices made them unpopular and thus did not sell well. For instance, in the 1902 The Silent Worker, the popular newsletter for deaf individuals, Alexander L. Pach wrote:
Some question has been raised as to Mr. Hutchinson’s sincerity and belief in the efficacy of his machine [the Akoulallion]. There should not be any. Mr. Hutchinson was sincerity itself. He believed what many deaf people told him, and it’s a surprising fact that many of us who are deaf were fooled by that they experienced. I had intelligent deaf people tell me that they heard, where they only felt the vibrations, and these vibrations needed no machine to bring them out. Such a great number of the deaf are unable to distinguish between hearing and feeling that they were the means of deceiving the inventor, and some of our expert teachers, hearing ones, who stood by were fooled, too.
In 1901, Hutchison moved to New York and continued inventing new devices through his new company, the Hutchison Acoustic Co., operated along with Willard S. Mears. The “Acousticon” was shortly introduced, a more portable version of the Akouphone and powered by batteries; it had three components, cost 10 guineas, and the batteries lasted from a few hours up to a week. It was deemed a miraculous invention and adverts asserted the deaf that it was recommended, if not favoured, by many aural specialists.
A patent was granted on August 25 1903 (U.S. Patent 737,242). The specifications outline that:
This invention is a portable telephonic apparatus intended to be used by persons with impaired hearing…[It can be] adapted to be used in a room or hall to enable partially-deaf persons to hear speech, music, or other sounds which are ordinarily heard by persons with normal hearing powers.
Hutchison was prominent in publicizing his invention, even exhibiting it at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Queen Alexandra of Denmark counted herself as a grateful customer.
The virtues of the Acousitcon were tested by selected deaf and partially-deaf individuals in New York, who offered their professional opinions of the instrument. R.E. Maynard tested the device and notified readers of The Silent Worker that
the result was exactly the same—something that approximated sound was sent through the ear, which was rather more a sense of feeling, than of real hearing. It was so faint that no distinction could be made without the inventor first teaching the difference of sounds in the words “papa,” mamma,” “hello.” The notes from the piano and banjo could be differentiated, while the finer and shriller notes of the guitar and cornet could not, although the sound was thrown into the ear by some powerful current. It is probable the same difference in sounds could be distinguished by a deaf person holding in his hands an empty cigar box. While it was shown that bona fide deaf-mutes have little hope of making practical use of the Acousticon, it was clearly demonstrated that the device will prove highly helpful to the hard of hearing, and for that purpose is probably a great success (1903).
Hard-of-hearing Lucy Taylor was delighted at the benefits of the instrument. In 1913, she wrote to the Silent Worker:
It gave me the first ray of hope I have had in many years, for surely Mr. Hutchison knows what he is talking about. I have long felt, that if someone who understood, cared enough to really try, something might be invented, that would do for the partially deaf what glasses do for the partially blind.
The Acousiton’s advertisements were spectacular, quite eye-catching, even used during elections and maybe the device was even used by time-travellers!* Adverts highlighted the numerous satisfied customers across North America and Europe–this ad in particular indicates that there was a Toronto office branch.
He also invented another variation of the Acousticon, the “Massacon,” which converted audio into vibrations.
This variation was for those with more profound hearing loss, but the price was high: 12 guineas up to 23 pounds when sold in England through the company Acoustic Patents, Limited. A table version was also adopted in schools for the deaf, particularly in Chicago and San Francisco as a teaching tool to teach deaf pupils speech.
*The idea of a time traveller with a bulky hearing aid (or cellphone) struck me as really funny–imagine all the hijinks! No? Okay…