Wilson’s Common Sense Ear Drums

George H. Wilson (1866-1949) of Louisville, Kentucky, received a patent (U.S. #476,853) for his “rimless [and] self-ventilating” artificial eardrum in 1892. Often referred as “wireless phones for the ears,” the device was made of rubber, designed to be simple in construction and “so shaped that it can be quickly and readily removed and replaced without pain, and when in position is invisible, not liable to irritate, and is a good sound conductor.” Wilson_LetterheadEarly advertisements for Wilson’s device, the “Common Sense Ear Drums,” emphasized its invisibility, both in public, and for the wearer themselves—the device was so resilience, soft, and painless, that even a user could forget they had them on. In other words, Wilson’s design ensured the prosthetic nature of the eardrums; they were so integrated with body that it became a part of it, and could be easily forgotten.

Advertisements for the Wilson Ear Drum Company additionally capitalized on the technical and scientific aspects of the device: adverts were accompanied with an anatomical drawing of the ear, demonstrating the eardrum in position. Even the copy addressed the device as a “scientific invention,” rhetorically ensuring its legitimacy over other kinds of artificial eardrums available on the market. By the 1910s, however, the company’s advertisements dramatically shifted focus from the technical and scientific towards the morose suffering of the deaf person—Wilson’s Common Sense Eardrums were not only designs of science, but a cure so that no one could remain deaf.

Ad_WilsonEardrum_1890s

The shift was due to the work of salesman Albert Lasker (1880-1952) who made a name for himself as an advertiser at the agency Lord & Thomas, by ensuring ad copy appealed to the psychological state of customers. Around 1900, Lasker proposed to Wilson a new ad copy, promising new and dramatic results. He replaced the technical drawing with a photo of Wilson cupping his hand to his ear; to Lasker, Wilson not only looked like “the deafest deaf man you ever saw,” but was evidence of a success story—deaf himself, now cured, by his own creation.[1] The new ad copy boldly proclaimed: “You Hear! When you use Wilson’s Common Sense Ear Drums.”

Ad_WilsonEardrum_1900Lasker

Other ads continued to portray deafness as curable when using Wilson’s Ear Drums, with the copy expanded at times to include testimonials. Customers could also write and request a pamphlet, which provided additional information about the benefits of the patented device in amplifying hearing; testimonials from satisfied customers further added support to the integrity and success of the device.

Ad_WilsonEardrum_1900_GettyImages

The advertisements for Wilson’ Ear Drums indicated that with the device, a d/Deaf person would be happier as they were able to participate in hearing society and include themselves in ways previously denied to them.

NOTES

[1] Jeffrey L. Cruikshank & Arthur W. Schultz, The Man who Sold America: The Amazing (but True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Industry (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010), 52.

Advertisements

Experiences of a Deaf Man

From The Albion Magazine (1907):

When a man suddenly becomes deaf there is little or nothing he would shrink from if it afforded, or seemed to afford, the smallest chance that he would recover the enjoyment of a sense which he never properly valued until he lost it. About sixteen years ago, when well advanced in life, I suddenly lost my hearing, first in one ear and after a few days in the other; and so great was my desire for a cure, that in the course of the next twelve-month I had placed myself, consecutively, under no fewer than six medical men, most of them well-known specialists.

 

The writer then summarizes his treatments and remarks in a table:

Treatment 1: Politzer’s inflation and Eustachian Catheterism on both sides. Pilocarpine internally. Result: Deafness became absolute on both sides.

Treatment 2: Potassium Iodidum in heroic doses. Potassium Bromidum. Blisters behind Ears. Result: Depression to the verge of suicide.

Treatment 3: Phosphorus. Result: Exaltation to the verge of lunacy.

Treatment 4: Ferrum Perchloridum. Galvanic Chain. Stimulating Food, Wine. Result: none.

Treatment 5: Gaiffe’s Battery. Result: none.

Treatment 6: Nitro-Glycerine. Arsenic. Result: none.

Shock machine developed by Adolphe Gaiffe (1830-1903) for treating nervous diseases. (Gilai Collectibles)
Shock machine developed by Adolphe Gaiffe (1830-1903) for treating nervous diseases. (Gilai Collectibles)

The Time-Travelling, Vote-Gathering, Miraculous Acousticon

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

deaf

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).

Acous_Hutchinson

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.

HutchinsonPatent1

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.

acousticon1916

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…
 

 

Blowena: A Sideline Cure for Deafness

During the early twentieth century, a man by the name of George P. Way set up his “Artificial Ear Drum Company” in Detroit, Michigan. The company advertised patented eardrums that Way boasted could restore hearing loss even after twenty-five years. Tiny and invisible, these eardrums increased amplification while providing the wearer immense comfort, as an 1907 advert declared:

Way_ad1907

In one advertising pamphlet, Way claimed he was an engineer and explained before he invented his eardrums, he had been deaf and desperately sought out various cures. What he omits, however, is that his eardrum was actually the invention of his wife, Frances M Way, who graduated in 1902 from the Detroit Homeopathic College. Frances’ name is also on the holder of the eardrum patent, U.S. Patent No.902785 (granted November 3, 1908). According to the patent specifications, the “invention relates to an improvement in invisible ear drums, show in the accomear and to serve as a support for the ossicles,” particularly in cases of eardrum ruptures.

Fway_patent
F.M. Way Patent, INVISIBLE EAR DRUM. Filed April 6, 1908; Patented November 3, 1908.

These eardrums cost $5 a pair and could be ordered through the mail.

Way_OrderForm
Way Order Form.
From: Detroit Historical Society Digital Collection

For another $5 an individual could also purchase Way’s “very unique instrument,” the “Blowena.” Portrayed as a “catarrh cure,” Way intended it to be sold as a sideline for eardrums in order to relieve a person’s deafness.

Courtesy of Phisick Medical Antiques
Courtesy of Phisick Medical Antiques

The Blowena is a small plastic device with a rubber hose attached, about 2 ½ inches in length.  A patient was to blow air from their mouth through the hose, attaching the other end up a nostril. A medicated sponge was contained in the opening to deliver the required medicaments for treating catarrh, hay fever, cold in the head, flu, or any irritation of the nose and throat that were symptomatic of deafness.

artificial-eardrum-106
Courtesy of Phisick Medical Antiques

Numerous individuals testified to the ingenuity of both the medicated eardrums and Blowena; Way also wrote to some of his clients. In a 1922 letter for instance, Way writes to a “Mr. Thing” with a special offer for purchasing the eardrums and Blowena:

I again extend to you our special offer, of a complete outfit of our artificial eardrums, with full instructions, also our Catarrh blowena for head noises and catarrh, for the price of Seven Dollars ($7.0) and shall be pleased to receive your order. This offer is good for ten days.

1922 letter from George P. Way to Mr.Thing. From:
1922 letter from George P. Way to Mr.Thing.
From:  Detroit Historical Society Collection 

 

Powell’s Electro-Vibratory Cure for Deafness

In 1905, Dr. Guy Clifford Powell, of Peoria, Illinois invented and marketed a device he called the “Electro-Vibratory Cure for Deafness.”

photo 2

The apparatus apparently cured a patient of deafness by pumping air through the ears via cotton-covered electrodes soaked in salt water. After pumping in air, a jolt of electricity generated by the solenoid coils is sent to the patient’s head. Two “Electro-Magneto Storage Cells” batteries were placed inside the top cover.

The Lindian Collection of Medical Devices has some incredible close-up photos of the device’s structures and an overview of the instruction manual.

The Electro-Vibratory apparatus was initially priced at $100 and promoted through mail-order marketing. Powell advertised himself as an “International Specialist,” even printing his image alongside his adverts for the device. Prospective clients would write in, request a trial, and the device would be sent to them once payment was received. Apparently as Powell risked being exposed as a fraud, he offered a hefty discount for clients—they only had to pay $15!

photo 3

After Powell died, his company was carried on by “Dr. L.C. Grains Company,” which operated out of Chicago instead of Peoria. The company added the Electro-Vibratory apparatus to its repository of deaf cures, including the “Read Clover Extract” and the “Curo Grains of Life.” However, all the advertising booklets, leaflets, and general paraphernalia issued by the L.C. Grains Company were identical to that of Powell’s—save for the portrait of the “Doctor!”

Testimonials and advertising ephemera from the Powell Company.
Testimonials and advertising ephemera from the Powell Company.