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The History of Headphones

Is it any surprise that headphones come from a long line of telephone and radio products? We’re taking you on a little time travel adventure which begins in the late 1800s (yes, you read that right!) to uncover the history of headphones. 

In the beginning

Headphones are predated by their cousins, heavy telephone operator earpieces. Like mini boom-boxes, they would sit on the operator’s shoulder to enable them to work hands-free… under the weight of a 4.5kg machine. These were invented by Ezra Gilliland, who was also responsible for the telephone switchboard and the magneto bell. Gilliland flew under the radar of history but was a close friend of Thomas Edison, and built the first telephone exchange in Indianapolis in the 1870s. But, we digress…

Did you know that a very early patent for earphones was submitted in 1891 by French engineer Ernest Mercadier? Weighing in less than 50 grams and extremely ahead of his time, Mercadier was somewhat of a trailblazer. But, unfortunately, these earbuds did not catch on for a while. Like, over a hundred years.

Around the same time, in the UK, the electrophone made its appearance. This device allowed users to dial a switchboard operator, who would then patch them in to live performances, and even Sunday church services. A subscription service for headphones… how interesting! This clever bit of marketing meant that the electrophone stuck around for a good 30 years. 

Then there was...

However, most resembling the headphones of today was Nathaniel Baldwin’s design from 1910. Designed and built in his kitchen in Utah, USA, these were eventually sold to the US Navy. Because, would you believe, no private investors through this would take off. Sadly for Baldwin, he didn’t think to patent this design. But happily, for us, that meant the evolution of headphones continued. 

Image by John Davidson, Public Domain

In 1937 Beyer produced a dynamic headphone and during WW2 German pilots in the Luftwaffe are said to be the first to have experienced stereophonic sound through headphones. But, the general public didn’t really have access, need or use of these types of devices. It wasn’t until after the war that products from AKG and Koss were widely marketed and became more popular. For the next few decades, until the ‘60s, AKG, Koss and Stax battled it out in the electrostatic headphone game with improvements on the same basic model. 

By RCA Records - Billboard, page 29, 18 November 1972, Public Domain

Recent history 

With advances in other audio equipment and the introduction of the Sony Walkman by the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there were more players in the field. Again, Mercardier’s earphone design attempted to make a dent in the market but it would have to wait… until 2001 and the launch of the iPod. Steve Jobs’ decision to market the iPod with a wired earphone design finally let these shine as an on-the-go experience for music listeners. 

Public Domain

Of course, by the 2000s, many cultural shifts and ways of living had changed, making headphones or earphones somewhat of a necessity in our lives. See our previous article on Active Noise Cancellation for more on this topic. 

Current technology 

Again, advances in other technologies enabled a better headphone experience. Almost a century after the invention of headphones, Bluetooth technology allowed for a truly wireless experience. One of the first of its kind was debuted in 1990, but due to unreliability, didn’t take off in the market until the early 2010s. 

Today, of course, most of our devices and headphones connect via Bluetooth but truly wireless earbuds are still a relatively new concept. Championed again by the likes of Apple, earbuds have moved the conversation on from headphones as a fashion accessory. Where do we go next? 

The future 

While not much has changed in the general look and design of headphones, here at Nura, we have made some huge steps forward in the hearing experience. The majority of headphones on the market are only making cosmetic improvements to their established dynamic or electrostatic predecessors.

Through the work of our co-founder Dr Luke Campbell and a team of hearing researchers, Nura devices have revolutionised the hearing experience of headphones. Nura devices perform an Otoacoustic Test (OAE) on your ears to deliver a truly personalised listening experience. You can read more about how we do that here. And the best part? You have the choice of our award-winning Nuraphone or the portable, lightweight NuraLoop, both featuring the same personalised hearing technology. 

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