Headphones, History, & Hysteria

Fred Flare's Sherbet Colorblock Headphones

Fred Flare’s Sherbet Colorblock Headphones

Headphones are an integral part of modern media production and distribution. So, who invented them?

Here’s one theory: “The first stereo headphones were invented in 1958 by John C. Koss….” That statement may be found at this web site: http://www.bookrags.com/research/headphones-woi/

Here’s another: “[The Beyerdynamic] DT48 was designed in 1937, the first pair of headphones in human history.” Here’s the web site for that statement: http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/2970/beyerdynamic-dt48-what-is-it

Then there’s The New York Times Magazine. In it, on January 9 of this year, Virginia Heffernan wrote that headphones had been invented “a century ago” by Nathaniel Baldwin. A provided link to a Utah-history website indicates that the invention was in 1910. Here’s a link to Heffernan’s column: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/09/magazine/09FOB-medium-t.html. And here’s one to the Utah-history site: http://historytogo.utah.gov/salt_lake_tribune/history_matters/070801.html

As for me, I don’t know who invented headphones (though I have an informed suspicion, which I’ll reveal later). But I do know many who didn’t invent them. The list includes John Koss, Eugen Beyer, and Nathaniel Baldwin.

All three did make important contributions to headphone history. And, as best I know, none of them claimed the invention personally.

The Koss history may be found on the company’s museum page: http://www.koss.com/koss/kossweb.nsf/kmuseum. Koss, a musician who rented TV sets to hospitals, wanted to sell phonographs developed with his friend, Martin Lange.

Koss SP-3They brought the Model 390 phonograph to a hi-fi show at Milwaukee’s Hotel Wisconsin in 1958. To allow visitors to hear the quality of the sound in the noisy room, according to the Koss Museum, “They demonstrated the 390 along with a pair of aviator headphones.” The headphones were a bigger hit than the phonograph, so Koss started manufacturing SP-3 headphones (shown at left), perhaps launching the modern “personal listening industry.”

dt48e_web_1How do I know that Koss didn’t invent headphones? Among other things, the fact that his first demonstration used existing aviation headphones is a good clue. Another comes from the work of Eugen Beyer, best known today as the creator of the company now known as Beyerdynamic.

In 1937, Beyer’s company introduced the first DT 48 headphones, still sold today (the current version, the DT 48 E, shown at right, is said to be intended for ENG/EFP operations). And, although the DT 48 wasn’t hugely successful when first introduced, the DT 49, introduced in 1953, was very popular in stores that sold music recordings. Here’s a link to the history section of the Beyerdynamic web site: http://north-america.beyerdynamic.com/company/once-today.html.

It’s nice that The New York Times went farther back to some 1910 headphones, and I don’t fault them (much) for not realizing they weren’t the first. There’s no question that Nathaniel Baldwin manufactured headphones. One pair is shown below left, as pictured on the Vintage Headphones site: http://vintageheadphones.net/vintage-headphones/vintage-bakelite-headset-nathaniel-baldwin.php

Baldwin vintage_headphone-65023005128106430Baldwin’s headphones also show up in U.S. Navy documentation. Admiral Arthur Jepy Hepburn, head of the Navy’s Radio Division at the time, recalled coming “across a letter from Salt Lake City written with violet ink on blue and pink pad paper. The writer, a Mr. Baldwin, stated that he was sending a pair of telephones, which he had patented, and requested that they be tested. He wrote that they had a resistance of about 2,000 ohms, which he understood was standard for Navy headsets, but he could not be sure because he had no way of measuring it.”

That quotation is from section 9 of chapter XI of the book History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy, by Captain Linwood S. Howeth, USN (Retired).  It may be read here: http://earlyradiohistory.us/1963hw11.htm. The section goes on to describe how much more sensitive Baldwin’s headsets were than existing Navy versions and how, after some false starts, he also made them more comfortable than the existing versions.

So, how do I know that Baldwin didn’t invent headphones?  Well, in part, it’s because the Navy book shows that Balwin’s were better than existing ones, which means that Baldwin’s weren’t the first. And the fact that Baldwin hoped his matched the Navy impedance shows that even Baldwin was aware of the earlier versions.

electrophoneheadphonesAnother reason Baldwin’s cannot be the first is because of something the BBC called “The 19th Century iPhone,” the Electrophone: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8668311.stm. Electrophone service began in Britain in 1895. According to the BBC story, “If [Electrophone subscribers] wanted opera they could be connected to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. They would then put on their headset and listen.” A version of the headset is shown at right.  Its four wires indicate that it was stereo-capable (the first live transmission of stereo sound took place in 1881, as I described in this earlier post: http://schubincafe.com/blog/2010/01/100th-anniversary-today/).

Telefon Hirmondo - trimmedIt’s true that the Electrophone headphones were worn under the chin instead of over the head, but the Electrophone followed the slightly earlier Hungarian Telefon Hírmondó. The drawing at left shows a subscriber to that service clearly wearing a set of over-the-top headphones.

Were the Telefon Hírmondó headphones the first?  They were not.

1890 Mercadier trimmedAt right is a portion of an 1890 drawing of someone taking dictation by telephone while wearing a pair of Ernest Mercadier’s headphones. The full photo may be found in the book Vintage Telephones of the World, by P. J. Povey and R. A. J. Earl, published in 1988 by Peter Peregrinus Ltd., London, in association with London’s Science Museum, as part of the Institution of Electrical Engineers’ (IEE) History of Technology Series 8.

Mercadier did his work in Paris. On June 16, 1891, he received U.S. Patent 454,138 for his headphones, called a Bi-Telephone. But even they weren’t the first headphones.

Pages 3 & 4 of the July 6, 1888 issue of The Electrical Engineer had the following two sentences: “The operator’s receiver has been designed to leave hands perfectly free, and is mounted on a strop or band, which goes over the head and allows the receiver (or two if preferred) to come close over the ear. This form is largely used in Lisbon by subscribers who wish to hear the opera without leaving their residences, and is greatly appreciated.”

Was there a subscription service delivering opera to homes in 1888? There was. It actually began in 1885, as I noted in this previous post: http://schubincafe.com/blog/2010/10/125th-anniversary-of-pay-cable/.

elbow restWere those the first headphones? Perhaps they were. It depends on one’s definition of headphones and who the users had to be.

Those 1888 headphone users were listening to music at home, just as users of Koss’s headphones did in the late 1950s. And what did those headphones replace? Previously, listeners to stereo music sent over telephone lines had to hold a receiver to each ear. To reduce muscle strain, there were elbow rests, as shown at the left.

If the definition of headphones is not restricted to home users, however, the people who needed them first were telephone operators. Without headsets of some kind, they would be restricted to positions in front of telephone microphones and would have to hold receivers to their ears throughout their work shifts.

Fang operator 2Ezra Gilliland, who worked for both the Bell Telephone Company and Thomas Edison and was later involved in sound recordings, rigged a telephone transmitter (mouthpiece) and receiver (earpiece) into a contraption that sat on an operator’s shoulders. According to various reports, the Gilliland harness weighed between 6 and 11 lbs. It appears to have been in use no later than 1881.

One is depicted to the right. The photo is a portion of one that appears in the book A History of Mass Communication by Irving Fang, published by Focal Press in 1997.

Was that the first form of headphone? Possibly. Think of it the next time you decide to complain about your intercom.

A year before the earliest published information we know about the Gilliand harness, however, Edward P. Fry, an invalid, installed a telephone connection to New York’s Academy of Music so he could listen to operas.  Much has been published about Fry’s listening habits, which included reading a small book of the opera’s text (libretto) and surrounding himself with photos of the singers, which he would pat when he thought they did well and turn upside down when he didn’t.

It seems unlikely that an invalid held a telephone receiver to his ear for hours while also reading a libretto and manipulating photographs. So, it’s possible that the first headphone was created in 1880. But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was even a little bit earlier.

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