Nineteenth-Century Disability:  Cultures & Contexts

Webster’s Otaphone, a Patented Hearing Aid

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Two photographs of Webster’s Otaphone, a silver device curved to match the shape of the ear and painted beige to match the wearer's skin tone.  The first photograph shows a close up of a dragon, the second shows the whole device, whose beige paint has chipped with time.  Courtesy of The Central Institute for the Deaf-Max A. Goldstein Historic Devices for Hearing Collection.  Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine.

Introduction

UK patent #7033, dated 17 March 1836, is the earliest British patent for a hearing aid device, granted to the aurist (19th century term for ear specialist) Alphonso William Webster, for his “curious” invention, the Otaphone (sometimes spelled “Otophone”). In his publication, A New and Familiar Treatise on the Structure of the Ear, and On Deafness (London: published by the author, sold by Simpkin & Marshall, 1836), Webster outlines he was first devised his invention by observing the common practice of cupping the hand to the back of the ear to enhance hearing. He wondered whether the practice could be obtained by “means less troublesome and unsightly” (132). 

Webster’s Otaphone is constructed of pure silver, painted the beige to match the skin of the wearer, and shaped into a curve to be placed in the back of the ear. A small hook secures the device on the ear. The design allows the auricle (the external part of the ear) to be projected forward to collect sound waves, much as if the wearer was cupping the ear. Webster further adds that the warmth created by the close contact of the metal with the skin could also stimulate the acuity of hearing (Goldstein 343). Though the Otaphone might appear as a “fanciful and fallacious” idea, Webster actually applied theories of the ear and sound conduction that was available to him during the 1830s.

This particular version dates to 1860 and is part of The Central Institute for the Deaf-Max A. Goldstein Historic Devices for Hearing Collection (Item VC703086).   At the underside of the device, the words “WEBSTER’S R PATENT” and a dragonhead are inscribed. Curiously, there is little information about the dragonhead mark. It is highly likely that the inscription was the mark of the manufacturer, as an identification mark, rather than a decorative item applied by the wearer. The beige paint has been chipped from time and perhaps wear. The Otaphone would likely have been worn by individuals with mild hearing loss who did not want to make their deafness widely known—the design of the device allowed it to be easily concealed in the hair or camouflaged by a hat. 

Primary Source Text

[Webster's Otaphone] supports the depressed parts of the auricle, and thereby conveying more vibrations to the inner ear, derives its name from [ota] the ear, and [phone] sound. It is formed of pure silver, doubly gilt, which, taking the exact shape of the back of the ear, when supported in its most capacious form, spreads as it were a sail for the collection of sonorous impressions. A small hook, projecting over the top of the ear from behind, is the only part that can be seen on looking at the face, and the hair is generally so profuse on the temples as to hide it altogether. The Otaphones have this advantage over spectacles, that while the latter add an expression of age to the countenance, the former, by restoring a more youthful figure to the head, increases its intellectual character. The invention was first suggested by observing persons at church, and other large assemblies, supporting the ear with the hand; which induced the author to consider whether the same advantage might not be obtained by means less troublesome and unsightly. His own experience, and subsequent experiments in which he was assisted by his friends, soon convinced him of the correctness of his inductions; since which the Otaphones have been worn in both Houses of Parliament, on the Bench in the three divisions of the empire, at places of Public Worship, and Theatres, and every public arena. The principle on which they act is so nature, as to be almost instinctive.

Source

Webster, A.W. A New and Familiar Treatise on the Structure of the Ear, and On Deafness. London: published by the author, sold by Simpkin & Marshall, 1836, p.132.

Date

1860

Further Reading

  • Bernard Becker Library Virtual Exhibit: Deafness in Disguise: Concealed Hearing Devices of the 19th and 20th Centuries http://beckerexhibits.wustl.edu/did/index.htm

  • Berger, Kenneth W. The Hearing Aid, it’s Operation and Development. Michigan, USA: National Hearing Aid Society, 1970.

  • Goldstein, Max A. Problems of the Deaf. St. Louis: The Laryngoscope Press, 1933.

  • Koelkebeck, Mary Lou, Collen Detjen, and Donald R. Calvert, Historic Devices for Hearing: The CID-Goldstein Collection. St. Louise: The Central Institute for the Deaf, 1984. 

Contributor

Jaipreet Virdi-Dhesi


Collection

Citation

A. W. Webster, “Webster’s Otaphone, a Patented Hearing Aid,” Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts, accessed December 12, 2017, http://nineteenthcenturydisability.org/items/show/30.

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