The History of Siemens Hearing Aids

In Focus

December 18, 2013 – Phonophor: The History of Siemens Hearing Aids

 
Cover of a print publication, 1914

Cover of a print publication, 1914

The history of electrical hearing assistance instruments starts with technological advances in telephones at the end of the 19th century. When Werner von Siemens integrated a horseshoe magnet in the receiver of a telephone in1878, he succeeded in substantially improving transmission quality in the telephone. That was quickly followed by a crucial realization: the hearing impaired could follow a conversation better if it was transmitted via the telephone.  

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were already hearing instruments made by other manufacturers on the market. However, these devices were still quite large and heavy. At that time, the engineer Louis Weber was working on loudspeakers and microphones for telephone systems at Berlin’s Wernerwerk of Siemens & Halske. In 1911, plant manager August Raps instructed him to build a lightweight and inconspicuous hearing aid for a banker friend, Carl Kloenne. After several initial abortive attempts, Weber succeeded in developing his “device for the hearing impaired”. As early as December 1913, the combination of a “sound catcher with two microphones” and a headphone was able to go into serial production. That innovation was marketed under the name “Esha-Phonophor” (i.e. the initials “s” and “h” in German = es-ha), which was derived from the name of the company: Siemens & Halske. Phonophor was subsequently produced in a wide variety of versions and sold for decades.

 

Multi-use hearing systems for deaf children

Audio communication systems for schools, 1957

Audio communication systems for schools, 1957

After constructing the first Phonophor product line, Weber was involved with systems that were a combination of hearing aid and telephone. The instruments, which were called “multi-user hearing systems”, were used in schools, theaters, churches and other public lecture programs. In the latter half of the 20th century significance of these systems diminished: hearing devices were becoming increasingly powerful and so small they could fit inside a tiny housing, which the hearing impaired person could even wear behind the ear.

 

Increasingly smaller and lighter

The Phonophor Alpha in pocket size, 1951

The Phonophor Alpha in pocket size, 1951

Subsequent to the success of the first Phonophor models, Siemens & Halske expanded the production of hearing aids in the Berlin-based Wernerwerk. Development progressed quickly, but especially so after the end of World War II: New models were constantly being introduced into the market during the 1950s and 1960s. The devices grew increasingly more compact, light-weight and more powerful. By using so-called sub-minature tubes, they could even fit inside a vest pocket. In 1951, the pocket hearing aid Phonophor Alpha was the first of these new instrument types to become available.  

The Auriculette behind the ear, 1959

The Auriculette behind the ear, 1959

Thanks to transistor technology, which had already been developed in the 1920s but wasn’t ready for mass production until 1954, it became possible to develop even smaller hearing instruments that could now be worn either behind the ear or even in the ear. In 1959 Siemens launched the “Auriculette”, their first Behind-the-Ear (BTE) hearing aid, in the market. The device quickly became a big hit. Women in particular liked the fact that it essentially disappeared behind the ear. Glasses combined with hearing aids were also being sold then. From the mid-1950s until well into the 1980s, such “hearing glasses” were popular amongst the hearing impaired who also needed vision aids.

 

The division grows

Hearing aid assembly with magnifying glass and tweezers, 1966

Hearing aid assembly with magnifying glass and tweezers, 1966

The miniaturization of hearing aid components over the course of the 1960s also posed challenges to the employees: The assembly of the tiny parts requiring use of a magnifying glass and tweezers demanded a very fine sense of touch. The Business Unit Audiology evolved to become world leader by the mid-1980s. Another milestone in the development of hearing instrument technology was the advent of digitalization in the mid-1990s. Hearing aids nowadays can be connected wirelessly to computers, televisions and mobile phones. They recognize and analyze the respective audiological environment and can adapt themselves accordingly with the aid of specialized software. The prerequisite for that is an even more precise device fitting and audiometry in regard to the respective wearer. Siemens has also been working on solutions to optimize hearing system adaptation to the specific needs of the individual patient for over 100 years.

Today Siemens can both look back and continue to build on their many patents, which are based on proprietary research as well as close working relationships with scientists, universities, doctors, hearing aid acousticians and other audiology experts. Thanks to innumerable innovations, the hearing instrument section of Siemens' Healthcare Sector has grown from a small department to a world leader in the field of hearing aid technology over the past 100 years. Now it can boast a world-wide presence with over 4000 employees.

 

 

 

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