The Time-Travelling, Vote-Gathering, Miraculous Acousticon

An 1922 advertisement in The Illustrated London News caught my eye:


Look at the flapper! Is she being coy? Ignoring the gentleman who’s obviously flirting with her? Or is she deaf to his fancy words?

This was the first half of an advert for the “Acoustion,” which claimed it could restore hearing in deaf individuals and improve their lot in hearing culture:

Why…should you be debarred from the pleasures of attending church, theatre, concert or conference? Why, when there is an instrument that will neutralise your deafness, should you be prevented from entering into conversation without difficulty, and listening to music without effort?

The Acousticon was one of the first portable electric hearing aids, the invention of American engineer Miller Reese Hutchison (1876-1944).


He invented the first electrical hearing aid around 1895, called the “Akoulallion” (Greek for “to hear” and “to speak”), a table instrument that was connected to a carbon microphone and earphones—essentially, a “microtelephone.” The device was sold in limited quantities for $400 out of The Akouphone Company, which was established by Hutchinson and James H. Wilson in Mobile, Alabama in 1898/9. In 1901, the Akoulallion is redesigned and sold as the “Akouphone,” at a retail price of $60. The bulky nature of these devices made them unpopular and thus did not sell well. For instance, in the 1902 The Silent Worker, the popular newsletter for deaf individuals, Alexander L. Pach wrote:

Some question has been raised as to Mr. Hutchinson’s sincerity and belief in the efficacy of his machine [the Akoulallion]. There should not be any. Mr. Hutchinson was sincerity itself. He believed what many deaf people told him, and it’s a surprising fact that many of us who are deaf were fooled by that they experienced. I had intelligent deaf people tell me that they heard, where they only felt the vibrations, and these vibrations needed no machine to bring them out. Such a great number of the deaf are unable to distinguish between hearing and feeling that they were the means of deceiving the inventor, and some of our expert teachers, hearing ones, who stood by were fooled, too.

In 1901, Hutchison moved to New York and continued inventing new devices through his new company, the Hutchison Acoustic Co., operated along with Willard S. Mears. The “Acousticon” was shortly introduced, a more portable version of the Akouphone and powered by batteries; it had three components, cost 10 guineas, and the batteries lasted from a few hours up to a week. It was deemed a miraculous invention and adverts asserted the deaf that it was recommended, if not favoured, by many aural specialists.

Surdus in search of his hearing
The Acousticon. From: Evan Yellon, Surdus in search of his hearing (1906)

A patent was granted on August 25 1903 (U.S. Patent 737,242). The specifications outline that:

This invention is a portable telephonic apparatus intended to be used by persons with impaired hearing…[It can be] adapted to be used in a room or hall to enable partially-deaf persons to hear speech, music, or other sounds which are ordinarily heard by persons with normal hearing powers.


Hutchison was prominent in publicizing his invention, even exhibiting it at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Queen Alexandra of Denmark counted herself as a grateful customer.

The virtues of the Acousitcon were tested by selected deaf and partially-deaf individuals in New York, who offered their professional opinions of the instrument. R.E. Maynard tested the device and notified readers of The Silent Worker that

the result was exactly the same—something that approximated sound was sent through the ear, which was rather more a sense of feeling, than of real hearing. It was so faint that no distinction could be made without the inventor first teaching the difference of sounds in the words “papa,” mamma,” “hello.” The notes from the piano and banjo could be differentiated, while the finer and shriller notes of the guitar and cornet could not, although the sound was thrown into the ear by some powerful current. It is probable the same difference in sounds could be distinguished by a deaf person holding in his hands an empty cigar box. While it was shown that bona fide deaf-mutes have little hope of making practical use of the Acousticon, it was clearly demonstrated that the device will prove highly helpful to the hard of hearing, and for that purpose is probably a great success (1903).

Hard-of-hearing Lucy Taylor was delighted at the benefits of the instrument. In 1913, she wrote to the Silent Worker:

It gave me the first ray of hope I have had in many years, for surely Mr. Hutchison knows what he is talking about. I have long felt, that if someone who understood, cared enough to really try, something might be invented, that would do for the partially deaf what glasses do for the partially blind.

The Acousiton’s advertisements were spectacular, quite eye-catching, even used during elections and maybe the device was even used by time-travellers!* Adverts highlighted the numerous satisfied customers across North America and Europe–this ad in particular indicates that there was a Toronto office branch.


He also invented another variation of the Acousticon, the “Massacon,” which converted audio into vibrations.

photo 1
From: Evan Yellon, Surdus in search of his hearing (1906)

This variation was for those with more profound hearing loss, but the price was high: 12 guineas up to 23 pounds when sold in England through the company Acoustic Patents, Limited. A table version was also adopted in schools for the deaf, particularly in Chicago and San Francisco as a teaching tool to teach deaf pupils speech.

From: Evan Yellon, Surdus in search of his hearing (1906)
From: Evan Yellon, Surdus in search of his hearing (1906)

By 1905, Hutchison sold his company and the rights to Kelley Monroe Turner (1859-1927) who would introduce various types of the Acousticon, some with volume control.

*The idea of a time traveller with a bulky hearing aid (or cellphone) struck me as really funny–imagine all the hijinks! No? Okay…



A Census of the Deaf

Sir William Robert Wilde (1815-1876) was one of the most notable aural surgeons during the second half of the nineteenth-century. He made numerous to aural surgery, including tables on the hereditary basis of deafness and newer hearing tests to determine degrees of hearing loss. Wilde also made extensive use of statistics in his writing, using numbers to support his analysis. As such, some of his work provides remarkable insight into how deafness—and the deaf—were perceived by the medical profession, categorized, and even treated. His statistical work, particularly his Report upon the Tables of Death (1843), which outlined mortality rates in Ireland, as analyzed from the 1841 Irish general civil registration.

William Wilde, c.1870s (from Wikipedia Commons)
William Wilde, c.1870s (from Wikipedia Commons)

In 1850, Wilde was commissioned as Assistant Medical Census Commissioner, a position he would hold for the remainder of his life.[1] As part of his position, Wilde undertook a special study of the deaf, attempting to table not only the number of deaf individuals in Ireland, but also the number of families with deaf relations, the causes of their deafness, the length of their hearing loss, etc. In short, Wilde aimed to provide the first systematic and comprehensive data record of deafness in Ireland. Only 1 family refused to give informed consent (to which they would have been subjected to a fine). Wilde recorded there were 4,747 “true deaf and dumb” in a population of 6,553,386 (or 1 per 1,380).[2]

The data was formerly published as part of the census reports, in Part III: Report of the Status of Disease, Accounts and Papers (Ireland) 1854. Wilde also published his results in On the Physical, Moral, and Social Condition of the Deaf and Dumb (1854), a short pamphlet outlining the data as well as his own analysis as an aurist. In the beginning of the pamphlet, he notes that in undertaking an inquiry into the condition of the deaf and dumb, there are two “great objects present—a physiological and a social:”

Under the former the deaf mute may be classed among those afflicted with permanent disease, either congenital or acquired, and as such, demands the careful investigation of the statistician; and all the causes and phenomena of the affection solicit attention equally with those circumstances attendant upon lunacy, idiocy, blindness, or any of the other persistent maladies which affect certain portions of the community in all countries. Under the latter head the deaf mute claims the special attention of the philanthropist, and the protection of the State…

The pamphlet also lists the questions that were employed in the data collection, including “Whether the person was born deaf and dumb, or became so afterwards?” “Whether the person is educated, and if so, where and by what means such education is acquired?” “The mute person’s position in the family, whether first, second, or third child, in a family of so many, both living and dead?”[3] The questions served to collect as much data as possible, particularly on hereditary deafness, an interesting connotation to later data-collections of the deaf in the United States by the Eugenics Record Office.

Table of Causes of Mutism, from Wilde's On the Physical, Moral, and Social Condition of the Deaf and Dumb (1854)
Table of Causes of Mutism, from Wilde’s On the Physical, Moral, and Social Condition of the Deaf and Dumb (1854)

[1] Robert J. Ruben, “William Wildes Census of the Deaf: A 19th Century Report as a Model for the 21st Century,” Otology & Neurotology 31 (2010): 352-359; 354.

[2] Ruben, 356.

[3] William R. Wilde, On the Physical, Moral, and Social Condition of the Deaf and Dumb (London: John Churchill, 1854).

A Bead and a Thwack

Surgeon John Abernethy (1764-1831), in his Lectures on Operative Surgery (reprinted in The Lancet vol.8 (1827), 449):

Now I remember, not a very great many years ago, that there were paragraphs put into the newspapers, about a child having got something into its ear, which could not be got out. The poor child was in great agony, and it was said that this foreign body produced irritation in the child’s brain, and I don’t know what all. As the British public are very much alive to humanity, there were, morning after morning, in the papers, paragraphs exhorting the friends of this family not to be afraid, for the body would come out. To these paragraphs, I confess to you, I added one myself, and it was the following effect:–A child got a bead from its mother’s necklace; it was a large bead, and in playing with it, it put into its ear. In trying to get it out, she only poked it further down. In others attempting the same thing, they only made bad worse in the same manner. A surgeon was sent for, but this large bead had got so far down into the tube of the ear, that the surgeon said at first he did not believe it was there; being assured that it was, he put down a probe, and felt that there was something in it. The child was a good-natured child, and the surgeon said to it, Now I wish you would just lie down upon that ear; put your head upon this cushion, it’s a large soft cushion belonging to a fashionable sofa. The child did so. He took up another cushion, and put it upon the opposite ear. Now, said he, I will strike the opposite one, and tell me if it hurts you. The child said, No, it does not hurt me at all. He therefore kept thumping the cushion that was laying on the child’s head for eight or ten times, and then he said, Now let me look at your ear. He looked at it, and then said, Now I see it plainly enough. On repeating the operation, the bead came out. And now I really believe that that’s the best way of getting those things out.


The “Popular Prejudice”

Throughout my research of nineteenth century works on aural surgery, as well as works on deafness and education for the deaf, I’ve come across the phrase “popular prejudice” often enough to warrant some analysis. The phrase reflects two crucial aspects of how deafness was perceived as a social image:

Firstly, deaf-mutes were constructed as social tragedies, isolated from society by their dumbness and denied the word of God by their deafness. The prejudice in this sense refers to the isolation, which could be helped only through benevolent charity and religious endeavors to release deaf-mutes form their “mental and moral imprisonment.” Seclusion in educational asylums that provided sign-language and speech instruction were deemed the best means for defeating this prejudice.

Secondly, and partly as a consequence of the first aspect, deafness was subjected to a prejudice regarding the medical and surgical impracticability of curing aural diseases. As Sir Astley Cooper (1768-1851) explained in 1801, following the success of his procedure of tympanic membrane perforation, “[a] prejudice has prevailed, that the ear is too delicate an organ to be operated upon, or, as it is commonly expressed, tampered with; and thousands have thus remained deaf…who might have been restored to hearing, had proper assistance been easily applied.”[1] Likewise, John Harrison Curtis wrote in his An Essay on the Deaf and Dumb (1829):

Though in very old cases cures may be performed, yet it is to recent ones chiefly that the aurist is to look for success; but, owing to popular prejudice, the malady is too often slighted or temporized with; and hence it is generally in confirmed cases on that he is consulted; for, in the early period of the disease when relief may be obtained, it is commonly neglected, until, tired out with the fruitless expectation of nature curing herself, the patient has at last recourse to advice.

I don’t yet have a solid historical analysis of this phrase, but I believe it’s worth emphasizing the value of it as a means for understanding the tensions between educators of asylums for the deaf and medical practitioners edging for patients. I’ll report more as I figure this out; in the meantime, your thoughts, Dear Reader, are more than welcome.

[1] Astley Cooper, “Farther Observations on the Effects which take place from the destruction of the membrana tympani of the ear,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in London 91 (1801): 35-450; 449.

Deaf World/Hearing World

As some of you may have gathered from my Tweets, my paper has been selected for the Deaf World/Hearing World: Spaces, Techniques, and Things in Culture and History Conference to take place on December 10-11 in Berlin. The conference is sponsored by the Max Planck Institute and Project Biocultures at the University of Chicago.

The history of deafness presents an exemplary model of a community’s mobilization for the recognition of a cultural identity. It is also an unequaled history of divisions across a broad range of pedagogy, techniques, and scientific inventions. Across the last four centuries at least, constructions of deafness as a cultural identity and/or as a disability have lead to opposite claims. Deafness became a focal point for arguments over citizenship, eugenics, language, theories of the mind, and the like. A different set of categories was produced to give voice to these claims and the dialogue between their supporters has been extremely difficult for lack of a common stake. Depending on the approach, one can say such a heated debate has given the question of deafness a very specific place among human variations. Sign language, in particular, has lead many to question the relationship between mind, body, and language. Topics include the use of objects and techniques for creating a space of encounter, conceptions of the relationship between humans and language, language and thought, or language and society across time and space. We are seeking explorations of the dialectic between hearing and silence, deaf and hearing as well as the technologies and ideologies that intervene between the deaf world and the hearing world, the deaf person and the hearing person.

My paper abstract:

Institutional Boundaries: The Early Years of the Royal Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear (est.1816)

The issue of medicalizing the deaf has been a primary source of conflict between the D/deaf community who regard medical treatments as an infringement to their culture, and medical practitioners who impose their paternalistic authority through medical and surgical treatments. The source of the tensions, however, goes beyond technological cures and is embodied in the historical role and conflict between medical and social efforts to cultivate “isolated” deaf individuals for social integration. This paper establishes roots in this historical picture by illustrating the early history of the Royal Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear (RDDE), founded in 1816 by the aurist-surgeon John Harrison Curtis (1784-1852) as the first nationally-recognized institution in Britain providing specialized care for deafness. In particular, this paper will demonstrate that the RDDE occupies a central place within the history of nineteenth century aural surgery, for it provides an interesting historical insight into the dialectic of spaces for deafness and hearing, as the objectives of the institution blur the boundaries between duty and philanthropy, as well as medicine and technology.

Founded at 38 Carlisle Street, London, near Soho Square, the RDDE was founded upon two main objectives: to expand on benevolent charity for a class of sufferers often neglected by society and medicine, and to provide a base whereby aural surgery could establish itself as a specialty, provide proper training to interested practitioners, and experiment with less invasive procedures for treating deafness. It was thus a space where the deaf population could go for medical advice, receive free or inexpensive hearing devices (e.g. trumpets, ear cornets), and even participate in a community conditioned largely by charity. In the first year of its establishment, 364 patients were admitted, 89 of which were cured, and 75 “relieved” of their maladies. By the end of 1820, the RDDE admitted 1,863 patients. As London society congratulated Curtis for rescuing a neglected class of diseases from ignorance and empiricism, the institution’s reputation grew more prominent; Royal patronage secured the reputation of the institution and it relocated to larger grounds at 10 Dean St., Soho, where it remained until 1876. By examining the discrepancies between the two objectives, a close history of the RDDE reveals the extent to which deafness was taken seriously as a medical and social ill and to which a cure was desperately sought within institutional boundaries.

Super excited!