The invention of the headphones and their evolution over the years

Posted by Ventsislav Genchev
Nathaniel Baldwin's headphones

Everyone likes to listen to music. Different styles with different rhythm - according to mood, according to time, according to emotions. So we should not be surprised that not everyone wants to hear our music. This is one of the reasons why headphones become an absolute necessity in our daily lives.

Walking around the city nowadays you will meet dozens of people who use headphones. From miniature ear plugs to so large that the listener looks like a fighter pilot. And yet where does everything begin? How did the idea of headphones come to be and their increasingly large popularity?

1816

Listening devices that are placed in the ears have been in existence for more than 200 years. In 1816, French physician Rene Laennec (1781-1826) invented the first stethoscope using a long tube of rolled sheet of paper to direct the sound from the patient's chest to the ear. He was so impressed with the results that he made a wooden version to carry with him.
Rene Laennec and his stethoscope made of wood
Rene Laennec and his stethoscope made of wood

1877

Over the years, many devices have been invented to record sound, but only in 1877 Thomas Edison manages to reproduce the recording through his phonograph. The sound was recorded in advance via channels on tin foil rolled around a rotating cylinder. The reproduction was made of a stylus that responded to the sound vibrations.
Thomas Edison with his second phonograph in Washington in April 1878
Thomas Edison with his second phonograph in Washington in April 1878
Subsequently, a number of phonograph improvements have been made, such as wax-coated carbon cylinders, cutting stylus, and zigzag grooves around the recording. While in 1887 Emile Berliner (1851-1929) developed the idea of Edison by replacing phonographic cylinders with flat zinc disks, which he called a "record label". The new invention, called "gramophone", was patented on September 26, 1887.
Emile Berlinger with his zinc gramophone plate
Emile Berlinger with his zinc gramophone plate

The evolution of gramophones is extremely interesting, but this article is not for them. So let's move on with the history of the headphones.

80s of the 19th century

In the 1980s, the first ancestors of today's headphones were used by telephone operators. It was a single headphone (handset) that was placed on the shoulder and weighed about 5 pounds.
Telephone operator with a handset on the shoulder
Telephone operator with a handset on the shoulder

1891

In 1891, French engineer Ernest Mercadier (1836-1911) patented a set of earbuds that he called "bi-telephone". They were light enough to allow them to be worn on the head when used by telephone operators. They also have a rubber coating to reduce external sounds. His design is incredibly clever in miniaturization and is similar to modern in-ear headphones.
Ernest Mercadier with a bi-telephone
Ernest Mercadier with a "bi-telephone"

1895

In 1895, the British company Electrophone created a system that allowed users to listen to theater performances, churches and opera in London directly in their comfortable home. The company installed a special device with four pairs of massive headphones attached to the chin and held by a long rod.
The Electrophone system for listening to home audio
The Electrophone system for listening to home audio
The service was extremely expensive for its time - 5 pounds a year. A further pound could be added for another set of headphones. This system was more like a telephone. By 1908, 600 subscribers were served with programs from 30 theaters and churches. Even events for collective listening were organized.
Can you imagine that the more wealthy people have been listening this way for more than 30 years - from 1895 to 1926?
Collective entertainment with the Electrophone system
Collective entertainment with the Electrophone system

1910

So we come to 1910 when Nathaniel Baldwin (1878-1961) creates in his kitchen the first modern headphones. For the first time, a pair of headphones look like the ones you see today.

In the years before World War I, small businesses and individual inventors were not allowed to offer products and skills to the U.S. Navy. However, Baldwin sends a letter accompanied by two prototype headphones he offers for military trials. Initially, his proposal was not taken seriously, but after the first tests they immediately made a request for more.

Sadly, Baldwin managed to accept only a small 10-piece order because he continued to produce them in his kitchen. Nevertheless, the U.S. Navy agrees with limited production capabilities because the headphones were better than anything thus far.
The first headphones by Nathaniel Baldwin, invented in 1910
The first headphones by Nathaniel Baldwin, invented in 1910

Subsequently, the design was significantly improved - a reinforced headband and two adjustable thin sticks attached to each side. These changes are extremely successful and the U.S. Navy advises Baldwin to patent the new model. He refuses, however, because he considers this to be a minor innovation. Let us note that all headphones are nowadays regulated by this "insignificant innovation". To what extent would a patent result only we can guess.

Overall Nathaniel Baldwin was a very interesting person. A Mormon fundamentalist who earns a Stanford electrical engineering diploma and started working as a teacher but rejected for active polygamy support, even though he himself had only one wife.

1937

In 1937, Beyerdynamic's first dynamic headphones - DT-48 - appeared on the market.

This event is a huge leap in technology, and although a few decades later the electrostatic headphones come in, the dynamic is still the most popular type on the market. However, let's not forget that the electrostatic speaker has unquestionable advantages - simplicity of design and sound quality with the least distortion.

The company Beyerdynamic has been in existence since 1924, and continues to produce microphones and headphones today.
Beyerdynamic DT-48 Headset from 1937
Beyerdynamic DT-48 Headset from 1937

1949

In 1949, AKG launched its first headphones – K120.

This model is becoming so popular that the company continues with the development of other headphones. Eventually, AKG leaves its film business and focuses only on music products. An interesting fact is that they have started their business with 5 workers who assemble microphones for radio stations and jazz clubs.
AKG K120 Headphones from 1949
AKG K120 Headphones from 1949

1958

The next revolution in headphone development was in 1958, and John C. Koss was the culprit with the creation of the Koss SP-3.

Music lovers quickly appreciate the excellent stereo sound of SP-3, which delivers quality unheard of until that moment. The design was highly appreciated during the debut of the Milwaukee Hi-Fi exhibition in 1958 and very quickly copied by other manufacturers, bringing the headphones to set a world standard over the next few years.

John Kos was born on February 22, 1930 in Wisconsin. In 1952, he married and used the money donated at the wedding ($ 200) to start a business. According to unconfirmed data, his wife was sure they would be buying a sofa, but alas. The result - SP-3 Stereophones and a new era in headphone development.
Koss Corporation's SP-3 Headphones from 1958
Koss Corporation's SP-3 Headphones from 1958

In the 1960s, Koss became the undisputed leader in the headset market and became one of the leading suppliers of U.S. military.
Koss Corporation continues to produce headphones to date.

1968

In 1968, the German company Sennheiser released the world's first open-ended HD 414 headphones. That's where the high-end story begins.

Introducing open headphones has a great deal of impact on the market as they are able to reproduce a more natural sound that is preferred by many consumers.
The world's first open Sennheiser HD 414 headphones
The world's first open Sennheiser HD 414 headphones
With their new technology, the HD 414 is an absolute boom in sales. By the end of 1969, more than 100,000 units have been purchased, and to date, the Sennheiser HD 414 continues to hold the world's best-selling headset with sales of over 10 million units.
Sennheiser HD 414 headphones with sales of over 10 million units
Sennheiser HD 414 headphones with sales of over 10 million units

In the following years, the evolution of headphones has not stopped and they are still developing. In the 1970s, the first cordless headphones were made, which were to use radio waves. The invention of Bluetooth 1.0 technology in 1999 also has its influence. It is difficult to predict what we expect in the future, but judging by the history of this so popular product, quality will continue to be the basis for its development.