Have you ever wondered when headphones were first invented? How did headphones change over time?
Join us as we take a look back at the entire history of headphones. No one can deny the need for at least one pair of headphones today, which has progressed from a luxury to a necessity.
Headphones have evolved significantly since their invention in the late 1800s. The first headphones were used by telephone operators and had only one earpiece. They were heavy and single-sided, with people holding them up to their ears to communicate. Over time, headphones became associated with leisure and pop culture. In the 1880s, switchboard operators used a type of headphone that could weigh up to ten pounds. Today’s headphones come in various shapes and sizes, from over-ear to in-ear, wireless or wired, noise-cancelling or not. They are widely used for listening to music, watching movies, playing games, making phone calls, and more.
In fact, the headphones industry earned $34.8 billion in 2020 alone, or sold 514.5 million units in a single year! However, headphones, like any other technology, did not become a massive industry overnight.
Decades of innovation were required to transform this technology into the headphones we know today. And it’s a fascinating story to boot!
WHEN WERE HEADPHONES INVENTED?
In the nineteenth century, the forerunner to today’s headsets first appeared. This device, however, did not have a headset name and did not have the same design as it does today.
1. Invented Time And Inventor: 1880 Headphones
Ezra Gilliland invented the headphone in 1880. It is a term used specifically for switchboard operators. In the nineteenth century, the purpose of this audio device was not to listen to music as we do today. Rather, the headset is used to listen to telegrams.
When the telegraph was at its peak, the switchboard had to constantly improve the efficiency of electric wires and cables. Without a switch, each phone would have to be connected directly, which would necessitate a lot of cabling.
“Headset” was born, successfully connecting callers’ phones to the switchboard’s cable by clicking. By 1895, people had gradually begun to use the headset as an audio device, but it had not yet been completely phased out of the telegraph service.
2. Headphone Design
Although the operation principle of these primitive devices is very similar to that of modern headphones, sound devices from the 1880s are not considered modern headsets. The reason for this is due to the different purposes of use and the design, which is somewhat different from the devices you are currently using.
Ezra Guilliland’s invention has only one earbud and must be connected to a stethoscope for transmission. Although it lacks the entire sides of modern designs, the tool is still quite heavy, weighing between 6 and 11 pounds.
THE EVOLUTION OF WEARABLE HEADPHONES
Despite its modern appearance, the device used by agents in the nineteenth century could not be considered one of the world’s first headsets. This title, on the other hand, refers to the following names:
Invented Time And Inventor
Although not the original design that appeared in 1880, an American Nathaniel Baldwin’s 1910 invention was the world’s first modern headset model. Nathaniel Baldwin’s motivation for creating a sound generator was simple: he couldn’t hear the sermon during the Sunday service.
And, like any other inventor at the time, he sent his prototype to the United States Navy. The United States Navy used radio systems to transmit messages in the twentieth century.
The product that plays the sound, on the other hand, cannot free the phone user’s hand. Baldwin’s most recent design solves this issue admirably. As a result, it’s understandable that the navy quickly ordered 100 of his products.
Baldwin’s design was very similar to modern headsets. It had two ear cups connected by a headband, a design that became popular years later and is still used today. The unit only produced mono sound in early models.
However, the product’s sound quality was also quite impressive at the time. Baldwin refused to apply for a patent on his industry-changing invention because his design change was not dramatic enough to be considered a creative invention. This refusal cost Baldwin numerous opportunities to earn large sums of money.
THE 1880S: THE 10-POUND HEADPHONES
Bulky headphones can be bothersome or even uncomfortable for some people. As a result, most people prefer smaller, lighter options. A smaller option would not have been possible if you had been alive during the invention of headphones!
Switchboard operators in the 1880s used a type of “headphone” invented by Ezra Gilliland that could weigh up to ten pounds. It had one earpiece that was connected to a phone and a large microphone that rested on the shoulder. These phone operators were doing it before it was cool to carry a boombox on your shoulder!
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1891: THE FIRST “EARBUDS”
Ernest Mercadier, a French engineer, patented what he called a “bi-telephone” in 1891. This was the first recorded version of in-ear headphones.
They are lightweight and portable, and they are similar to the IEMs we use today. Given that it happened around 130 years ago, it’s quite an accomplishment! He even suggested that a rubber cover be used to protect the ear from friction while using them.
Of course, in the late 1800s, the use of earbuds or headphones for music listening was a long way off, and the technology’s applications were limited to phone calls.
THE 1890 Headphones: THE ELECTROPHONE
There are numerous ways to listen to music with friends online these days. But what about more than a century ago, before even the radio was invented? The Electrophone is introduced.
The Electrophone was a subscription service in London that was innovative and ahead of its time. It enabled users to listen to live theatre performances over the phone. To listen to the programs, users would use specialized headphones connected to their phone lines. It’s similar to Spotify, but for opera!
It appears to be similar to modern headphones, except that instead of resting on the top of the head, they were handheld with a rod on the bottom connecting to the earpads.
1910: THE FIRST OFFICIAL AUDIO HEADPHONES
There have been similar ideas in the past, but many people believe Nathaniel Baldwin invented headphones. All because Baldwin’s invention included some significant improvements over previous designs.
Baldwin’s invention, like today’s headphones, had two padded ear cups and two bands across the head to allow it to sit comfortably on the head – no hands required. Baldwin invented the first headphones in his kitchen in Utah as a device to help him hear the sermons at his local Mormon temple, not realizing the enormous potential.
Initial investors scoffed at the idea, unaware of its worth until it was picked up by the US Navy. Because of their design, which did not require an external power source, the Navy placed a large order for these headphones. This provided Baldwin with a significant business opportunity.
Baldwin’s financial success, however, did not last. His company went bankrupt as a result of a series of bad investments and a stint in prison for mail fraud.
1958: THE BIRTH OF BRANDS
Some audio brands, such as Philips and Sennheiser, are instantly recognizable. All of the brands we know and love today, however, can be traced back to John Koss. Headphones were not widely available on the market in the 1950s.
Headphones were mostly used for military and communication purposes. This changed in 1958 when Koss introduced the Koss Model 390 phonograph, a “private listening system.” It came with a record player, a speaker, and a headphone jack.
He also created headphones to go with it, the Koss SP-3. For comfort, these early headphones had plastic earcups, a 3-inch speaker, and foam earpads.
John Koss’ invention of the first headphones designed specifically for music listening paved the way for further advancements in headphone technology. In addition, there has been a significant increase in the popularity of personal music listening.
THE 1960s: THE FIRST WIRELESS HEADPHONES
Wireless headphones dominated the market decades before Bluetooth technology existed. They were, in fact, present and widely used throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
These headphones were dubbed “radio headphones,” and they were exactly what the name implies. These headphones, which featured built-in am/FM radio antennas and 2-inch speakers in each padded earcup, allowed users to take their radio with them and listen to it wherever they went.
Back in the day, radios were a big deal. As a result, this model-assisted hearing-impaired individual in hearing their radios better anywhere. These are early versions of the radio headphones that are currently available on the market.
John Koss’s invention of the first stereo headphones was not his only foray into innovation. He also made significant marketing advances. The Beatles Phones, which were released in 1966 as a collaboration between Koss and The Beatles, were branded headphones.
The partnership with The Beatles was a commercial success. For the first time, the market for headphones expanded to include a teen audience and made its way into pop culture.
1969: THE FIRST OPEN-BACK HEADPHONES
In 1969, the headphone scene changed even more. This is due, in part, to the introduction of Sennheiser’s HD 414, the first open-back headphones. The user was able to enjoy a wider sound by leaving the back of the ear cups open rather than closed.
Not to mention the advantages of a lighter and more breathable design. The audio quality of headphones had improved, and people could now wear them comfortably for extended periods of time.
1979: THE WALKMAN
Headphones remained primarily a home listening device in previous years, owing to the lack of a portable audio source. However, with the introduction of the Walkman, music listening became more personal and private. Instead of listening to the radio, you could listen to your own music library.
And, for the first time since the Walkman’s introduction, cassette tapes outsold vinyl records. Keep an eye out, world! Sony’s revolutionary Walkman helped headphones leave the house for the first time in 1979.
The Walkman was small and light enough to take with you wherever you went. This essentially met the requirement for portability in headphones.
While technology changed the personal music scene, many users felt that the Walkman’s headphones (a single metal headband and two foam earphones) didn’t provide the best audio quality. This resulted in an increase in demand for third-party headphones.
1989: BOSE’S NOISE-CANCELING HEADPHONES
With the innovative invention of noise-canceling headphones in 1989, the use of headphones for a private listening experience evolved even further.
Noise-canceling headphones have been around for a long time, with various designs and patents dating back to the 1950s. However, it wasn’t until Dr. Amar Bose’s work that these designs evolved into what we know today.
You may know him as the founder of the well-known audio company Bose. Noise-canceling headphones, in essence, work with a small microphone that captures all outside noise and generates an equal and opposite sound wave to cancel it out.
This technology was beneficial to pilots in the aviation industry as well as combat vehicle crewmen in the Army. However, it grew in popularity for personal use over time.
THE 1990s: GROWTH OF SMALLER TECHNOLOGIES
With the advent of portable music devices such as cassette tapes, CDs, and minidiscs, attitudes toward wearing headphones shifted. People were taking their music with them on the go, rather than just listening to it at home.
Now, there was a growing desire for a smaller, more portable headphone technology. Sony’s ‘Street Style’ headphones are an example of this.
This need was met in the 1990s with the introduction of smaller, more portable types of headphones – in-ears, earbuds, neckband headphones, and others.
1994: BONE CONDUCTION HEADPHONES
For decades, scientists have known that bone conduction can be used to improve hearing. In fact, Beethoven is said to have used bone conduction when he lost his hearing. Werner Bottesch, however, did not patent the first bone conduction headphones until 1994.
Bone conduction, like many other innovative headphone technologies, was developed for the military. These headphones allowed the user to stay connected to the outside world by transmitting sound directly through the bones of the skull rather than the eardrum.
However, as time passed, bone conduction headphones became more popular among regular consumers and athletes, with companies such as AfterShokz becoming well-known.
2001: THE RISE OF IPODS
There’s no denying that by the turn of the century, Apple had begun to pull ahead of the pack in terms of audio and technological advancements. The iPods are a great example of this.
The introduction of iPods paved the way for portable digital music listening. As a result, people eagerly abandoned clumsy cassette tapes, CDs, and so on. The earphones that came with it also revolutionized the industry with their white, sleek, and modern design.
The rise of the iPod and mp3 players, similar to what happened in the 1980s with the introduction of the Walkman, resulted in a massive increase in the market for low-cost, lightweight earbuds, which has largely continued to the present day.
2004: BLUETOOTH REVOLUTION
While there had been extensive upgrades to headphones over the decades, one thing had pretty much always been consistent: wires connecting them to the audio source. That was about to change with the invention of Bluetooth.
Bluetooth technology had been under development since 1999, but while early versions could support voice calls, the bandwidth couldn’t handle streaming studio music.
2008: BEATS BY DRE
As the decade progressed, headphones grew in popularity and became more integrated with fashion. We saw branded headphones with The Beatles in the 1960s, and this trend continued when rapper Dr. Dre released his Monster Beats by Dr. Dre – big, bulky, and bold.
Their success has prompted other celebrities to enter the headphone market as well. The connection between headphones and fashion has persisted, with hundreds of styles available today for various functions and preferences.
2015: THE FIRST TRULY WIRELESS EARBUDS
Yes, wireless headphones and earbuds existed prior to 2015 (Bluetooth technology had been in use for approximately ten years at that point), but they were not entirely wireless. Although headphones did not have a wire connecting them to the audio source, they did have a wire connecting each earpiece.
That’s why Onkyo, a Japanese audio equipment manufacturer, surprised everyone by releasing the first truly wireless headphones — the Onkyo W800BT. With truly wireless headphones, everything was contained within the earbuds, including the on/off switch, mic, and volume control.
And, while it couldn’t compete with the technology of truly wireless earbuds available today, Onkyo demonstrated the possibility of this technology and paved the way for other manufacturers to release their own.
While Onkyo did release the first truly wireless headphones, they did not have the same impact as Apple’s AirPods. Apple changed the game yet again in 2017 with a major redesign of their iPhone and earbuds, abandoning their wired earphones.
AirPods are extremely light, weighing only 4g each, and have notable features such as the ability to double-tap to pause audio and automatic pausing when removed from the ear.
With over 60 million units sold, they have quickly become Apple’s most popular accessory. However, it is possible that Airpods’ most significant impact on the headphone industry is due to their chic and distinctive design.
Following their enormous popularity among consumers, more manufacturers and brands have created their own versions of AirPods, with some even outright copying their designs.
2020 AND BEYOND: THE FUTURE OF HEADPHONES
For example, who noticed the absence of 3.5mm audio jacks on recent iPhones? Other companies may follow suit, switching entirely to wireless headphones.
Some headphones can now also function as heart rate monitors, hearing protection devices, or personal coaches for training or workouts. What about taking it a step further and removing the audio source entirely?
The earbuds or headphones of the future may evolve into an all-in-one device capable of storing, streaming, and playing music. With the advent of virtual reality, surround-sound capabilities will become increasingly popular, even outside of gaming.
Watch this: Watch the Evolution of Headphones
CONCLUSION: How Did Headphones Change Over Time?
Headphones, as we know them, have a long history that dates back more than a century. The industry has continued to innovate in order to keep up with technological advancements and changing consumer preferences.
What part of the history of headphones piqued your interest the most? Was there a significant year or development that we missed? Let us know what you think in the comments section below, and share your big predictions for the future of headphones.
FAQs About Headphone History
How did headphones change the world?
Up to half of younger workers listen to music through headphones, and the vast majority believe it improves our performance at work. We confidently report in survey after survey that music makes us happier, better at concentrating, and more productive.
Do the sounds of headphones change over time?
Yes, in my experience, headphones can and do change in sound as they age. They function similarly to speakers in a home audio system. The same properties are applicable. Except for speakers, which have larger components, changing them is easier.
What were headphones originally used for?
The first headphones, however, had nothing to do with music and were used for radio communication and telephone operators in the late 1800s.
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