Publication Date

February 28, 2024

Perspectives Section

Everything Has a History

In researching the history of electric hearing aids, one puzzling instrument I came across was Acousticon’s Wrist-Ear. “Wear it on your wrist like a watch!” a mid-1950s ad declared, as this revolutionary device “gives you increased volume and provides flexibility in hearing that has never before been possible, because you wear it on your wrist!” The visual shows a man’s hand extended for handshake, his shirt and blazer cuffs pulled back to reveal a watch, surrounded by “WRIST EAR” in bold text encircled by an arrow. The ad did not show what the device looked like or exactly how it worked.

a small hearing aid strapped on a wristband in a green velvet case

Jaipreet Virdi

Textual sources provide only one part of the story. As a deaf historian, I knew I needed to examine the material culture of deafness to understand the technological and social perspectives of the instrument. The more I delved into visual culture like this ad, the more such sources seemed to contradict what I knew about how hearing aids are worn—both from my own experiences and from archival testimonies of deaf people. To track messages of normalcy in advertisements, I primarily relied on corporate archives and advertising materials. What few hearing aids I could purchase on eBay mostly allowed me to assess them in relation to mechanical ear trumpets and digital hearing aids. Engaging with material culture became a valuable method in researching this commercial history because it allowed me to answer questions that visual and archival sources alone could not. Objects prompted new questions about the materiality of deaf experience that were otherwise silent in the textual archive.

I needed to figure out if Acousticon’s product was a new hearing aid model or an accessory for concealing an instrument; the latter was a common strategy to minimize obvious features of hearing aids. (Sonotone, for instance, sold “hearrings,” jewelry to clip on the “button” of the earpiece.) Research in the corporate archives confirmed the “Wrist-Ear” was the Super-X-Ear (model A-165), a vacuum tube hearing aid measuring approximately 3 × 1 × 1 inches, made in 1950 by Dictograph Products Inc. From the Hearing Aid Museum, I learned that the Super-X-Ear was heavy for its size—three and a half ounces without batteries. It had a sunburst design on the front and two pocket clips should one choose to wear it in a shirt pocket.

Though designed to be worn on the wrist, alas, the Super-X-Ear bore no resemblance to a watch. It was merely a small hearing aid strapped on a wristband; it could also be worn as a brooch, tie clasp, or pocket clip. Wear it at the “perfect hearing level. No one will know it’s a hearing aid.” Still, I had questions: How was it worn? Did one wear the instrument on the wrist and route a long wire through the sleeves to the ear?

Answering these questions required examining the object, which meant spending months browsing eBay until a Super-X-Ear appeared for sale. I bought it and upon its arrival immediately tinkered with its features, opening the insert to examine the battery slot and vacuum tubes, feeling its weight in my hands and on my wrist. The earpiece wire was fragile, so I had to be careful extending it from the instrument port to my ear; clearly, the wire was too short for my arm. It was awkward and bulky to wear on the wrist. Perhaps this user didn’t wear it on their wrist? Or perhaps they purchased additional wire extenders, not included with the item I purchased? I could answer some questions about wearability; others remained unknown.

From then on, for every instrument I analyzed through advertisements, I attempted to find the object, too, and thus found myself curating a personal collection of historic hearing aids. When I deliver lectures on the book that emerged from this research, I invite the audience to examine these objects. I also use them in the classroom, where students regularly compare their designs to cell phones and imagine the lived realities of wearing the instruments every day. Many have never encountered these types of hearing aids before, and holding them provides a deeper understanding of deaf history and user experience, including the intimate bonds between technologies and flesh.

Jaipreet Virdi is author of Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History and associate professor at the University of Delaware.

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