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D. N. Brooks, in Hearing aids – a historical survey states that Emperor Hadrian

reportedly used to cup his hand behind his ear, the better to hear the affairs of state...Historically, the cupped hand was probably first replaced by a rolled up leaf or hollowed out animal horn.

There are references to medieval hearing aids in a number of articles online. For example, The (Big) Timeline of Hearing Aids states (under the heading 13th to 15th century):

Really early on, people would use animal horns and hallow bones as sort of an ear trumpet. While it helped a small amount, it was nothing close to an ear trumpet made of metal. It was the first sign of an attempt to aid the hard of hearing.

Also, the Textbook of Hearing Amplification, with reference to K. Berger’s The Hearing Aid, says that animal horns were used to aid hearing as early as the thirteenth century.

A little outside the medieval period, in 1588, the Italian scholar Giovanni Batista Porta described

wood carvings that resemble animal ears used to help people hear

Despite these references, the only images I have found from before the 17th century appear to be false leads: this picture taken in the Musee d'histoire de la medecine in Paris appears to have been mislabelled as medieval, likewise this picture. This Wikipedia article is of little help; it dates hearing aids as late as the 17th century (see example below).

enter image description here Early Modern period (1673) "Ear trumpets, as illustrated in: Athanasius Kircher's Phonurgia nova sive conjugium mechanico-physicum artis & naturae paranymta phonosophia concinnatum. Kempten : Rudolph Dreherr, 1673. (p. 160)."

Even in Ancient times, it is possible that some kind of hearing aid may have been used. Given that the Ancient Greeks had an in-depth understanding of voice amplification and acoustics (see this pdf), it is not inconceivable (but I’m not assuming) that they had an aid for hearing loss, just as they did for poor eyesight (see this Hist SE link). However, the only references I’ve found relate to people born deaf (and they aren’t very complimentary): there appears to be nothing online relating to hearing loss in the ancient world.

In short, the references I've found are at best vague and do not give any details or show any evidence or cite any contemporary sources. At worst, the information appears to be wrong. However, there is enough here to suggest that there may be evidence from the medieval period, if not earlier.

Aside from the use of the hand to cup the ear, what is the earliest evidence for the use of some kind hearing aid? Evidence (which can be dated at least approximately) could be:

  • an archaeological find

  • a reference to some kind of hearing aid in a contemporary source

  • a contemporary image of some kind (painting, engraving etc)

  • 1
    Cursory googling and scanning yields Giovanni Batista Della Porta, via a paper that compares Jean Leurechon's Récréations Mathématiques (1624) with the work you cited from 1588. Both works seem to describe a device that, as raised by your answer, was already known by then. If anything it may turn out you have written the best to-the-point and googleable answer to the question as is. ;-) – Denis de Bernardy Mar 22 '18 at 18:19
  • Yes, I don't think anything more can be had by googling. I was hoping someone might have access to Kenneth Beger's book or some such source. At the same time, I'm puzzled by the complete lack of evidence for Ancient Greece. – Lars Bosteen Mar 22 '18 at 22:41
2

From Kenneth W. Berger's The Hearing Aid:

Several centuries before Christ the Greeks brought a variety of large shells to Phoenicia. They hardened these with paint and used them as acoustical cornets.... [pp. 8]

Strange bronze objects which were found near Pompeii are supposed to have been used by the Romans as acoustical cornets. ... Archigenes... [circa 100 A.D.] believed that a loud sound, conducted into the ear by means of a "tuba" would stimulate the auditory system (Feldmann, 1970) [A History of Audiology]. [pp. 8]

Girolamo Cardano's Du Subtilitate, published in Nuremberg in 1551.... described how sound may be transmitted to the ear by means of a rod or the shaft of a spear held between one's teeth. [pp. 18]

The oldest known graphical representation of a hearing aid device is a seventeenth century engraving [the one included in the question]... in a 1674 publication by Athanasius Kircher. [pp. 8]

One other possibly useful entry in the bibliography, despite the alarming question mark, is Güttner, W. History of the Hearing Aid. SRW Nachrichten, No. 21, 23-24, 1966(?) [sic].

EDIT: Several uncited texts online claim that Alcmaeon of Croton constructed an ear trumpet, and an answer establishing that would be better yet.

  • No graphic image but an excellent find nonetheless, just the kind of information I was looking for. – Lars Bosteen Apr 9 '18 at 0:56
  • 1
    You found the graphic yourself! For my money, Berger ought to have revealed which sources described the Greek and Roman objects. – Aaron Brick Apr 9 '18 at 4:03
  • 1
    Agreed on the sources. Wondering if there is a picture of those 'accoustical cornets' somewhere. – Lars Bosteen Apr 9 '18 at 5:40
  • There must be. It's worth a new question. – Aaron Brick Aug 6 '18 at 19:15

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