Who Invented Headphones?

Who was the first person to see bees guarding a hive and think, “I bet whatever they’re protecting is delicious?” Or better yet, the first person to synchronize the playback of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz?

Sadly, the answers to the questions are lost in the mists of time. But at least we know who invented headphones, right? Or do we?

Plug the question, “Who invented headphones” into Google and you get a pretty simple and straightforward answer: Nathaniel Baldwin. Visit Baldwin’s Wikipedia page, though, and you’ll see that although he invented an improved telephonic receiver, which was sold to the U.S. Navy in 1910, photographic evidence exists of employees of the Maroni company wearing a very similar device as early as 1906.

According to Smithsonian.com:

The Navy offered Baldwin some suggestions for a few tweaks, which he promptly incorporated into a new design that, while still clunky, was comfortable enough for everyday use. The Navy placed an order for Baldwin’s headphones, only to learn that Baldwin was building them in his kitchen and could only produce 10 at a time. But because they were better than anything else that had been tested, the Navy accepted Baldwin’s limited production capabilities. After producing a few dozen headphones, the head harness was further improved as its design was reduced to only two leather-covered, adjustable wire rods attached at each end to a receiver that supposedly contained a mile of copper wire.

Indeed, the entire history of the headphone seems to be one of incremental improvements on existing designs, starting as early as the 1880s, with the single over-ear receivers worn by telephone operators.

Innovations along the way from then to now include Eugen Beyer’s development of the first dynamic headphone in 1937. Dynamic headphones differ from other headphone technologies in that they rely on a stationary magnet and a moving cone to create sound, much the same way that speakers generate audio. It proved to be such a popular and practical design that most headphones—and most earphones—these days still rely on dynamic drivers, such as Phiaton’s BT 150 NC neck band style earphones and BT 390 on-ear foldable headphones.

Fast-forward a few decades and we come to one of the most popular innovations yet. In 1958, John C. Koss forever changed the music industry with the introduction of the first stereo headphones in response to the first commercially available stereo recordings, introduced the year before. As a result, headphones became less of a tool for the military and telecommunications industries and more of a personal music listening device. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But hang on a minute. One thing that’s overlooked in most discussions of the history of headphones is their smaller, in-ear counterparts. As New York Times Magazine reported in its brief history of earphones, “Who Made That Earbud?”

In-ear listening devices had been around for at least a century. Starting in the early 1850s, doctors inserted the ivory tips of stethoscopes into each ear, and a few decades later, similar “ear tubes” were used to listen to recorded music. Thomas Edison attached stethoscope-like headphones to his phonograph machine, which played sound off wax cylinders. Some machines came with multiple sets of tubes, dangling like streamers on a jellyfish, so that several people could listen at once.

Very few ideas are formed in a vacuum. You can’t point to one person—be it Baldwin, Beyer, Koss, or even Edison—and credit them with inventing the idea of the personal listening devices we know and love today. At least not completely. All built upon and improved upon ideas and innovations that came before them. And that’s true of almost everything you can think of.

Except, of course, for the first person to steal honey from a beehive. Whoever that prehistoric hero may have been, I think we can all agree that we owe them a singular debt of gratitude.

By Dennis Burger

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