I was 6 years old when I received my first pair of hearing aids. For many years, I felt self-conscious about the standard, behind-the-ear pair I wore. I was sure they made my ears stick out. My hair, tied in a long braid as per Sikh tradition, did little to hide them—or to limit snickers, glances, and finger-pointing from other children. “They help me hear,” I would reply to their never-ending questions. “So I can hear like you do.” The second answer was a lie. I knew no matter how hard I tried, I could never hear the way they did. My hearing was broken.
When the first electric hearing aid was developed, in 1898, it ushered in a wave of innovation for the hearing-impaired. Modeled upon the principle of the telephone, these new electric aids relied on battery-operated carbon transmitters and ear phones. They were far more advanced than the mechanical hearing trumpets, conversation tubes, and acoustic fans of the past. For people with hearing loss, especially those with progressive hearing loss and the late-deafened—and even, to some extent, those born deaf or who lost hearing at a young age—these technologies promised opportunities for integration into the (hearing) social world.
But the devices were far from discreet. Large, bulky, and requiring heavy batteries that had to be charged frequently, they were frustrating, if not obnoxious, for users. The historian Mara Mills has argued that the history of hearing aids is a history of the miniaturization of technology, a cavalcade of progress towards better hearing. Individuals who were hard-of-hearing led demands for technological improvement. Yet even when the vacuum tube was introduced in the 1920s, making it possible to increasingly amplify sound while reducing the size of aids, many hearing-impaired people refused to wear their devices. By 1950, hearing aid companies were strategizing about how to sell their products to resistant consumers who not only complained about the discomfort and high cost, but candidly expressed their embarrassment over exposing their impairment. For instance, Irving Schachtel, president of the hearing-aid industry leader Sonotone Corporation, expressed an obvious truth: “that nobody wants to put on a hearing aid, and that hearing aids are most difficult to sell.”