Technology & Deafness

What can the history of technology tell us about the lived experiences and cultural history of the hearing impaired?

From: John Reynders & Co., Illustrated Catalogue and Price List of Surgical Instruments (New York).
From: John Reynders & Co., Illustrated Catalogue and Price List of Surgical Instruments (New York, 1889).

During the nineteenth century, acoustic aids became ubiquitous objects, varying in design, form, and amplification. The “Deafness in Disguise” exhibit at the Bernard Becker Medical Library brilliantly narrates the multitude of aids that were available for increasing hearing amplification, everything from conversation tubes, ear trumpets, walking sticks, and domestic objects. While these devices were helpful for individuals with residual hearing, evaluating these aids tells us how technological into deafness were imagined as an appropriate solution for integrating the deaf into hearing society. Aids that masked deafness and allowed the deaf to hear and speak were highly marketable items, as were those that incorporated the marvels of science and electricity. Even the exclusion of “non-technologies,” or non-acoustic aids for hearing that were banished due to their quackery imprint warrants a broader analytical framework for understanding the range of medical therapeutics available for historical actors. The history of technologies that were never produces can also tell us something about the intentions an motivations guiding how makers and users engaged in larger systems of medico-technological developments for hearing loss.[1]

Looking at the materiality of acoustic aids can provide us with insight into design, patenting, and manufacture, as well as how these aids inscribed particular cultural ideologies of “normalcy,” or wavered between the binary between orthodox and unorthodox medical practice—i.e. defining how these aids incorporated elements of “quackery” and how these elements can be categorized. Equally revealing is how the material culture of acoustic aids can afford us clues into how users employed these devices to navigate social relations. Instead of funneling these perceptions through a hearing worldview, examining technologies for deafness through user interaction allows us to assess how technologies created autonomy for deaf users, or provided agency over their own bodies. As Stuart Blume points out in The Artificial Ear: Cochlear Implants and the Culture of Deafness (Rutgers University Press, 2009), users/patients often make adjustments to the device(s) worn on their bodies, even if under surveillance by a medical practitioner, to bring the technology “into better alignment with their readings of their own bodies, with how they want to live, or with the image they want to project.”

How did technologies of deafness—acoustic aids, assistive devices, communication technologies—construct the daily lives of deaf persons in history? In Words Made Flesh: Nineteenth-Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture (New York University Press, 2012), R.A.R. Edwards outlines an 1869 article published in the periodical Deaf Mutes’ Friend that notified readers of an “alarm continuance:” a cord attached to the alarm wheel of a clock to drop a pillow to the sleeping face of a deaf person. The EveryBody virtual exhibit by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History additionally narrates how technology has played a distinctive role in the lives of people with disabilities, either through exclusion from mainstream society (as with the case of the telephone for deaf users), or through inclusion (new communication technologies). Even “lag time between the introduction of a technology, whether movies, telephones, trains, planes, automobiles, or ATMs, and its accessibility created discrimination, exclusion, and new barriers.”

Moving away from the medicalized framework of deafness can also unravel the threads of deaf experience in history. Last month I delivered a guest lecture for Mary Beth Kitzel’s “Deafness and Technology” course at Rochester Institute of Technology. Through an open and engaging conversation with a wonderful group of students, we focused on two primary topics of evaluating the history of deafness technologies: (1) on what counts as “quackery” and how this construction affects our historical understanding of the medio-technological options for amplifying hearing loss, and (2) on user autonomy and agency, particularly how technology can express the “personhood” of deaf individuals. I gave examples of decoration on hearing aids, including color, art, and engraving that drew attention to the aid rather than concealing it, and other historical cases of user adjustments for proper fit. I even pointed out the way users care for their technologies—whether it’s carrying it in a specially crafted pouch or ensuring there was a safe place to place the device on the nightstand—but one student captured the sentiment quite brilliantly, explaining personhood and modification of technology as exemplified on the iPhone. The apps chosen, their layout, the background wallpaper, the ringtone, the case, and so on, are all examples of how we personalize this technology to fit to our own needs and interactions with it. As the student remarked, and I’m paraphrasing here: “if you gave me your iPhone, I might not want it, because it’s not mine, not the way I set it up to be.”

As Mary Beth explained to me, the students in the course were assigned to research historical and modern technology devices used by deaf people to support their daily living. Moving away from medical technologies, the students focused on domestic devices, education technology, personal devices, social media/apps, and telecommunications. Some technologies include: Baby monitors for the deaf and hearing impaired; the teletype telephone; the teletypewriter (TTY);  and the SMARTBoard Interactive Whiteboard. There’s plenty of room for this compendium to grow, critically assessing technologies for deafness can provide much insight into the cultural history of deafness and the importance of integrating material culture studies with disability history.

You can check out the Deaf People and Technology Compendium by the students here.

On another, closely related pedagogical project on disability history, check out David Turner’s “Researching and Re-Telling the Past,” a research-focused approach for students to learn about nineteenth-century disability history.
NOTES

[1] For instance, see: Nina E. Lerman, “Categories of Difference, Categories of Power: Bringing Gender and Race to the History of Technology,” Technology and Culture 51.4 (2010): 893-918.

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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…
 

 

Elephant Clocks & Sultans of Science

“How many centuries did the Islamic Golden Age last?” a student asked me, thrusting his worksheet in front of me, anxious for me to answer his question. “6, 8, 9, or 10?”

“Uh…9? No. . Wait…” I answered, flustered because I can’t calculate in my head—I knew it lasted from the 8th to 13th centuries, but basic arithmetic slipped my mind at the moment. Our tour guide told the boy to go do the worksheet himself.

That was our introduction to the wonderful Sultans of Science: 1000 Years of Knowledge Rediscovered, a featured exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre.

Sultans-poster-web300

I became enthralled by the exhibit after seeing a photo of a replica elephant clock on Twitter, especially since I began learning about Islamic history of medicine and science a few years ago in order to add the topic as a module for my course on the History of Medicine. So I invited fellow historian Samantha Sandassie to visit the exhibit with me, to explore the history of Islamic medicine and chat about all things related to medicine, history, and random things of life.

Behold, the Elephant Clock!

Photo by Jai Virdi-Dhesi
Photo by Jai Virdi-Dhesi
Photo by Jai Virdi-Dhesi
Photo by Jai Virdi-Dhesi
Photo by Jai Virdi-Dhesi
Photo by Jai Virdi-Dhesi

This remarkable machine is the work of al-Shaykh Ra’is al-Amal  Badi’ al-Zaman abu-‘Izz Isma’il ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari (1136-1206), a Muslim engineer who lived north of Baghdad under the Ayyubid Dynasty.[1] He was named after his birthplace, Al-Jazari, a region in northern Syria and Iraq between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia; he lived most of his life in Diya Bikr in Upper Mesopotamia (now Southern Turkey). Approximately between 1174 and 1200, al-Jazari severed as the mechanical engineer to the Artuqid kings of Diya Bakir.

Around 1198, al-Jazari began writing his extraordinary book, Al-Jami’ bayn al-‘ilm wa-‘l-‘amal al-nafi’ fi sinat’at al-hiyal (Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices), after spending twenty-five years at the Artuqid court. The book was written in response to the request of the Artuqid king Nasir al-Din Mahmud ibn Muhamma; al-Jazari completed the book shortly before his death.

The book is an outstanding contribution to mechanical engineering, a compendium of both theoretical and practical mechanic, and beautifully illustrated. Al-Jazari describes fifty different types of machines in varying complexity, including: 10 water clocks; 10 designs of automata vessels for dispensing water and wine; 10 designs of water dispensers for bloodletting devices; 10 fountains and musical automata; 5 designs of water raising machines; and 5 machines or instruments for measuring spheres and locks. The book is not a theoretical compendium, but a practical guide—al-Jazari even includes how his water designs can be used for irrigation and domestic purposes.

The Elephant Clock is an intricate testimonial to the cosmopolitan nature of Islamic science and is a reflection of al-Jazari’s many travels. The elephant represents both Indian and African cultures; the dragon, Chinese; the phoenix, the ancient Egyptians; the water flow a representation of ancient Greek architecture; the Persian carpet; and the turbaned man on top of the elephant, Islamic culture.

382px-Al-jazari_elephant_clock
A page from a dispersed copy of a manuscript, dated 1315, of al-Jazari’s “Kitab fi macrifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The earliest water clocks were simple devices used mostly for astronomy and astrology. By the 12th century, water clocks became complex marvels of engineering skill and craftsmanship, as the accuracy of clocks and time-keeping were improved by the addition of automated control systems used for regulating prayer times.[2] The Elephant Clock’s timing mechanism is based upon a water-filled bucket that is hidden inside the elephant, taking half an hour to fill. The pulley system releases a ball that tips the water sound each half-hour. You can see the actual mechanics of the clock in this video.

Special thanks to Anita Lennon and Sebastian Assenza for their generous hospitality and to Samantha for putting up with my constant photography.

NOTES

[1] His full name indicates his titles: Ra’is al-A’mal means he was a chief engineer; Badi’al-Zaman means  he was unique and unrivalled; and al-shaykh indicated he was a learned and dignified scholar.

[2] For instance, see: Gerhard Dohrn van Rossum, History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).