Saved By Bell

Sep 10, 2016 10:48 PM

100 years ago, Alexander Graham Bell made the first transcontinental phone call.  Though Mr. Bell is famous for the instrument we call the telephone, few people realize that Alexanders primary focus was on amplifying sound to help the hearing impaired. His father, uncle, and brother taught elocution (public speaking) at universities in Europe. As Alexander Graham Bell was growing up, his mother gradually became deaf. These fateful facts had a profound impact on the young genius. One of his first jobs was teaching deaf students visible speech, an amazing system of translating speech into images, which was invented by his father. In his 20's he founded a school teaching deaf people to speak, one of his students was young Helen Keller.  He even fell in love with and married one of his pupils, Mabel Hubbard. She insisted he go by the less formal name Alec, and Alec it was. He even changed his signature.  She was profoundly hearing impaired. He delivered his dying words to her in sign language.

It was Alexander Graham Bell's passion for helping the hearing impaired that led to the invention of the electronic hearing aid. Oh, and also the telephone.

For the next 50 years, hearing aids progressed using Alexander Graham Bell 's patents. They were not very portable, unless you count strapping or hanging a box to oneself. These clumsy units had vacuum tubes, and were fragile and hot. Still, these machines were a miracle for thousands of people who lived in an otherwise quiet world.

Then about 50 years ago the invention of the transistor changed all that. Now hearing aids could be made small enough to be worn at ear level, and had enough fidelity to lend viable aid to even moderate hearing losses.  These instruments could be worn in or on the ear, and had rudimentary adjustments for frequency response.  Along with the advances in electronic sound processing, government level programs were established to research effective amplification prescriptive measures, most notably, Australia's National Acoustic Laboratory and the United States Veterans Administration.  Finally, Hundreds of  thousands of people who would have otherwise  been isolated in social situations could now do well in simple sound environments. Unfortunately, the technology could do little to help people with mild losses, or mild to moderate losses in modestly complex acoustic environments .

About 25 years ago, several important advances followed the invention of the integrated circuit, or microchip.

Hearing aids size and power consumption shrunk, and the instruments went from wearable to nearly comfortable. Sound processing technology allowed sophisticated  frequency response such as multiple channels or tracks for automatic volume control, sound compression, and feedback suppression. But just as importantly, researchers were developing equipment and techniques to better understand how brains process language and sound.  Digital sound processing came into regular use in hearing aids. Further miniaturization of the circuitry now started to produce instruments that could help nearly anyone struggling with hearing loss, from mild frequency specific losses, to the profoundly impaired. 

Expanded research into fitting prescriptions continue to optimize hearing aid fittings for diverse populations. Australia's NAL-2 and Western Ontario University's DSL.v5 are the result of thousands of hours of research into hearing aid 'prescriptions'.  In 1997 the US Department of Veteran Affairs established The National Center for Rehabilitative Auditory Research(NCRAR) which is unique among auditory research facilities because of its focus on the rehabilitation of auditory dysfunction and translation of research findings into practice.

Today, neurologists are beginning to demonstrate how important hearing is to over-all well being. Research continues to show real measurable benefit from hearing aid use. More importantly, our understanding of how our brains process speech and sound is gaining by leaps and bounds. Chips in hearing aids are fast enough to analyze 1200 million operations per secondThis is fast enough to enable modern instruments to manipulate sound bilaterally, simultaneously, in closer approximation to how our brains utilize acoustic information. In addition the little machines can automatically recognize speech in noise, and filter out noise BETWEEN syllables. They can connect to phones, TVs and public address systems, some even connect to the internet.

Yet despite the fact that todays hearing aids function at the cutting edge of neurology and technology, and in lieu of the fact that every authoritative body that has studied them, recommends them, hearing aid adaptation rates remain at around 35% of people who could benefit from them.  Alec Bell would be disappointed that the inventions he made to help people hear are going so underutilized. 

Like Alexander Graham Bell, HearSwell is passionate about helping people hear better. They know that folks with hearing loss can lead happier, healthier lives through the use of these little miracle machines. HearSwell wants to help more people learn and experience what modern hearing aids can do. To that end, they put on regular informational seminars. They have also set up no risk, no money down trial periods. If you or a loved one suspect hearing loss, give them a call at 763-444-4051 or visit