Auricular Training & The Little Deaf Child

I came across a copy of The Little Deaf Child: A Book for Parents, a short book published in 1928 reassuring parents of deaf children that with proper training and education, there was hope for their children. The book was written by John Dutton Wright (1866-1952), the founder and director of the Wright Oral School in New York City, which was established in 1902. The school was originally the Wright-Humason School, founded in 1892 jointly by Wright and Thomas A. Humason on 42 West 77th Street, New York City. The school had a limited enrollment of 25-30 pupils; Helen Keller was one of the pupils, trained to read with her fingers and improve her speech.

John Dutton Wright. The autograph reads: "May this little book bring new courage for old despair."
John Dutton Wright. The autograph reads: “May this little book bring new courage for old despair.”

Wright begins The Little Deaf Child with a simple direction: “Please read the book through from beginning to end before trying to put its suggestions into practical operation in teaching a child. You must educate yourself before you can teach another.” The book follows the earlier slim books written by Wright: Handbook of Speech Training to the Deaf and Handbook of Auricular Training, which were directed to physicians in the hopes of counselling them how to advise parents of deaf children in both medical and educational options. In addition, The Little Deaf Child follows up from Wright’s 1915 publication, What the Mother of a Deaf Child Ought to Know (iTunes podcast also available), an original manuscript during the time offering advice to mothers to master their relationships with a deaf child. According to Wright, “It was not much of a book, but it was the only thing of its kind in print, and has been purchased by people all over the world. It has been translated into Japanese and Mahrati.”

The Little Deaf Child offers guidelines to parents in terms of training and education of young deaf children, for “[v]ery much can be done along these lines at home while the child is yet too young for school and this is where I hope this little volume may be of some service to the perplexed mother, wholly inexperienced in the situation which confronts her” (17). Wright divides the training of the young deaf child in to three periods: (1) For the first two years of life; (2) for the third and fourth years of life; (3) for the fifth year of life. By the time the child reaches age six, it is best to enter the child into one of the special schools for the deaf, or, if preferred, for the parent to employ a specially trained and experienced teacher in the home.

Wright advises parents to begin immediately by evaluating the child’s residual training to begin auricular training. Then, the child is taught to assess his or her other senses, and then, when the child proves to have retained some hearing sufficient to be employed, lip-reading training should begin. Gestures should be minimized and the parent should avoid “spoiling” the child. During the second period, the parent should asses the child’s sight, continue sense training by cultivating the child’s muscular sense, sense of sight, and touch; games of imitation (e.g. piling up blocks), could aid in this training process. Further hearing tests and lip-reading training should continue—moreover, the parent should concentrate on teaching the child to “listen to sounds for the purpose of getting ideas and not merely for the purpose of perceiving sound.” By the third period, the child should learn to read and speak through a variety of exercise that Wright provides in the book.

The book additionally provides a list of special schools for deaf children, with an overview of the common methods used in these schools. Although most schools used a form of the “Combined Method” (speech + speech-reading + auricular training), there were some schools that focused strictly on the “Manual Method” (sign-language), the “Oral Method” (speech + speech-reading + writing), or, as with the Wright Oral School, the “Auricular Method” (speech + hearing + writing), which made use of the hearing of semi-deaf pupils with or without the use of acoustic aids. The auicular method, it should be noted, was largely directed to educating pupils as hard-of-hearing speaking persons, rather than members of the Deaf community.

Wright examining a child (Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Hard and Hearing Collection; Disability History Museum)
Wright examining a child, 1900 (Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Hard and Hearing Collection; Disability History Museum)

Auricular training made use of hearing trumpets, audiphones, conversation tubes, and other types of acoustic aids to increase hearing amplification and make use of hearing as a means of communication. An article in the New York Times from 16 September 1917 explained how Wright brought auricular training to the attention of medical professions. Co-operation with physicians was required in “order that advantage may be taken of unrealized possibilities of educating slight powers of hearing remaining in the cases of many deaf children attending the special schools for the deaf throughout the country.” The “unrealized possibilities” of auricular training could be developed with proper teaching methods. According to Wright, about 35% of pupils at his school had sufficient residual hearing to benefit greatly by the auricular method:

I believe that an adequate examination of all the pupils in our special schools for the deaf would show that fully one-third of them—that is, more than three thousand—are suitable subjects for such training of the brain through the normal channel of approach…It has been my experience that while artificial aids to hearing may sometimes be useful in the earliest stage of awakening attention to sounds, and in the later stage in extending the range of which the hearing can be made of service, throughout the real education process of teaching the brain to associate meaning with sounds and to remember those associations, the use of the unaided voice, applied directly to the ear, produces the best and most rapid results.

Wright’s work at the school secured his reputation as a pioneer in education of the deaf with the use of acoustic aids and auricular training. He was also one of the first directors to include sound amplifiers in schools. He published several journal articles, especially in the Volta Review, the publication of the Volta Bureau (est. 1887, now the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing). The Volta Bureau advised all mothers of deaf children to read The Little Deaf Child.

Active in civic affairs throughout his life, in 1920 Wright traveled the world with his wife and two children, occasionally visiting schools for the deaf. He was particularly influential in the creation of Japan’s first oral school for the deaf. A collection of Wright’s travel photographs can be viewed at the Dutton Wright Photographic Collection at the University of Washington, some of which I’ve included below.

John Dutton Wright, his wife Ysabel Wright, and their children John Jr. and Anna seated on an elephant, with a car in the background, ca. 1921
John Dutton Wright, his wife Ysabel Wright, and their children John Jr. and Anna seated on an elephant, c.1921 (University of Washington Libraries)
Wright_IndiaElephan1921
One of Wright’s photographs in India, 1921 (University of Washington Libraries)
Wright's photograph: Boy and woman with babies on their backs, Japan, ca. 1921 (University of Washington Libraries).
Wright’s photograph: Boy and woman with babies on their backs, Japan, ca. 1921 (University of Washington Libraries).
Wright's Photo: Group of boys with bamboo instruments called angklung, Java, ca. 1921 (University of Washington Libraries).
Wright’s Photo: Group of boys with bamboo instruments called angklung, Java, ca. 1921 (University of Washington Libraries).

 

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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…
 

 

The Audiphone

I wrote a new entry over at Nineteenth-Century Disability: A Digital Reader:

On September 1879, Richard Silas Rhodes (1842-1902), president of a publishing company in Chicago, received a patent for his “Audiphone for the Deaf” his various improvements to the device. (U.S. Patent No. 319,828). Rhodes had conductive hearing loss[1] for twenty years following a bout of illness and was frustrated with his continuous failed encounters with ear trumpets. He observed he could hear the ticking of his watch when he held it in his mouth, and this inspired his construction of the Audiphone, which exploited the fact sound waves can be transmitted through the teeth or cranial bones.

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Webster’s Otaphone

I wrote a new entry over at Nineteenth-Century Disability: A Digital Reader:

UK patent #7033, dated 17 March 1836, is the earliest British patent for a hearing aid device, granted to the aurist (19th century term for ear specialist) Alphonso William Webster, for his “curious” invention, the Otaphone (sometimes spelled “Otophone”). In his publication, A New and Familiar Treatise on the Structure of the Ear, and On Deafness (London: published by the author, sold by Simpkin & Marshall, 1836), Webster outlines he was first devised his invention by observing the common practice of cupping the hand to the back of the ear to enhance hearing. He wondered whether the practice could be obtained by “means less troublesome and unsightly” (132).

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