Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Vintage Ear Trumpets!

People have always lost their hearing with age, but before there were hearing aids and cochlear implants, there were ear trumpets. And ear trumpet is pretty much exactly what it sounds like (a cone whose small end fits in the ear canal) and serves to better collect and amplify sound into the ear. A person hard of hearing would hold it to their ear as someone else would speak (or yell) into the large end of the trumpet. The earliest description of an ear trumpet was in the early 1600s.

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Most ear trumpets were custom-made, and they varied greatly in opulence and function. Some were hand carved out of fine woods or inlaid, while others were simple tin.

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The fancier ones were treated like fine jewelry, but that didn’t mean they worked any better. At any rate, the business of making them was flourishing by the 1800s. Neatorama recently posted a couple interesting examples of ear trumpets, gleaned from Phisick Medical Antiques.

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The one to the left is the Grand Opera Dome Ear Trumpet by Rein, an ornately detailed 19th century silver plated ear trumpet. The Queen Conch shell was said to be the musical instruments of mermaids, though it’s not clear whether the piece was functional or just meant to be a conversation piece!

While functional ear trumpets were usually dark colored, so as to be inconspicious against the dark clothing of the wearer, famous people were not ashamed to use them. Beethoven, who was increasingly going deaf, was known to use ear trumpets by the age of 44. Some of these (the top 3 trumpets in the picture below) were made for Beethoven by the inventor of the metronome, Johann Nepomuk Malzel.

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Hat tip Steve for the Neatorama link!

Comments

  1. #1 Bryce M
    December 16, 2007

    I can hear the ocean!

  2. #2 Russ
    December 16, 2007

    In the case of the “Grand Opera Dome Ear Trumpet,” do you know if there was any functional advantage to having the portion of the horn that actually heads to the ear begin at the “lip” of the dome? It seems to me, and my acoustically naive sensibilities, that it would be better if that were at the top of the dome.

  3. #3 Tim
    December 16, 2007

    Someday your gene therapy and notch manipulations will become vintage bioengineering. Let’s hope its sooner rather than later.

  4. #4 Minnesotachuck
    December 16, 2007

    If (or more likely when) my hearing goes the way my father’s and older brother’s did I’ve often thought it would be really cool to use an old-fashioned ear trumpet instead of an ordinary electronic hearing aid. I suppose when the time actually comes I’ll feel differently after I’ve actually compared their effectiveness.

  5. #5 Neil Bauman
    December 16, 2007

    Hi Russ:

    Regarding the Grand Opera dome ear horn and all similar “London Dome” shaped ear horns. The reason the ear tube comes out at the “mouth” of the horn instead of the top is that this is a parabolic ear horn, not a straight horn type. The sound comes in goes straight to the back and because of the parabolic shape is reflected back into the tube at the mouth of the horn using the same principle as is used on all satellite dish antennas which are parabolic shaped with the receiver sitting in front of the antenna–not at the back center.

    Works quite well.

  6. #6 Neil Bauman
    December 16, 2007

    Hi Chuck:

    It IS cool to use one of the old fashioned trumpets. Just last week I took mine to a restaurant to show a friend (we’re both hard of hearing) and it works surprisingly well. And we got a lot of curious stares from people that had never seen a long ear trumpet before.

    The downside is that you have to hold them, and typically you only use one in one ear. It’s so much better and easier to have hearing aids in both ears–but for the novelty, go for it.

  7. #7 The Flying Trilobite
    December 16, 2007

    I like the shell one. I’ll have to start checking garage sales next summer for more like that. I always see a lot of shells no one wants anymore…I wonder how many were ear trumpets? It could happen.

    Shelley, could you do a post of the history of banana-in-the-ear as alligator repellent? It was discovered by Ernie, and refined by Bert.

  8. #8 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    December 17, 2007

    You ought to run an article about the perils of ear candling.

  9. #9 Russ
    December 17, 2007

    Thank you, Neil.

    That makes good sense. Just to tease this apart further, would it improve performance if the tube was aimed toward the back of the horn?

    Russ

  10. #10 andre schmid
    May 26, 2009

    I have a collection of verious ear trumpet, for sale.

    Who is interested,

    Andre Schmid

  11. #11 corre
    June 25, 2011

    Pour illustrer un court métrage personnel, je recherche des photos de bonne qualité, de cornets acoustiques.

    Quelles sont vos conditions?

    Merci de me répondre par retour

    Claude Corre

  12. #12 corre
    June 25, 2011

    I am preparing a personnal short film, and for the purpose of illustration of some scenes, I am looking for good photos of old ear trumpets.

    I would be very glad if you have some photos. What would be your conditions for such request?

    Thanks a lot.

    Claude Corre

  13. #13 Nikki
    August 13, 2011

    My mum is looking to get an ear trumpet for my Dad,could anyone point me in the right direction of getting one? Thank you.