Before There Was Radar There Were Great Big Hearing Aids

A German observation post, 1917.  The ear horns were used to detect the sound of incoming enemy aircraft and to help spot them, the goggles acted like binoculars.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau led commemorative services this week to mark the 100th anniversary of The Battle of Vimy Ridge in World War 1.

Vimy Ridge has come to symbolize Canada’s coming of age.  For the first time Canadians from all across the country fought together under Canadian command.  Their decisive victory over the Germans cost 3,598 Canadian lives.

In honour of the occasion here’s something a little different.  The following pictures depict a very odd type of hearing aid that first appeared on the battlefields of World War 1.

This was a war when fighter planes and bombers made their debut.  It was also a time before the invention of radar so the best way to detect incoming enemy aircraft was to listen for the sound of their engines.

Of course, the further away you could hear them the better you could prepare so these early warning “acoustic listening devices” were developed.  Here are some weird and wonderful examples:

This Czech device was tested by the Dutch military.  They concluded it had “fundamental deficiencies”.




This Dutch device called “The Personal Parabola” is one of my favourites. Although this soldier apparently doesn’t seem too thrilled with it.
This huge double trumpet system was deployed in 1921 at Bolling Field, an airbase in Washington DC.
These Japanese detectors were nicknamed “War Tubas” and are seen here being inspected by Emperor Hirohito in 1935.

The “acoustic detection” era ended with the development of radar in WW2.

The Carney Curse

I was diagnosed with presbycusis (the premature loss of hair cells) at 50, and I was told the primary cause was genetic. Indeed, a look at my family tree confirms the diagnosis.

My grandfather on my mother’s side, Bernard Carney, began to notice he was losing his hearing in his 50’s. My mother too began losing hers at the same age. The rate and pattern of my hearing loss is the same as hers, and I am certain it’s the same as her father, my Grandad.

My Grandfather and his hearing aid
My Grandfather Bernard Carney

In the early 1960’s he got a hearing aid. You can see it the picture. It was a fairly crude device by today’s standards. In his shirt pocket he is wearing a microphone/amplifier about the size of a cigarette pack. You can see the white cord that runs to the small speaker in his ear. He was a thrifty man and he would sew pockets into his shirts himself.

He used to blame his deafness on his time in Malta during WWI when he would dive off the cliffs during his days off. But my mother has never been to Malta let alone done any cliff diving. Neither have I.  Nor has one of my cousins who came up with the term, “The Carney Curse”. 

A Very Cool Hearing Test

It was a bit of a PR stunt but a very clever one.  Instead of listening to tones in a booth, the people being tested were treated to Beethoven played live by a symphony orchestra.

The choice of Beethoven’s Fifth is kind of poignant.  He wrote it during his thirties, a time when he was becoming increasingly deaf.

The special concert was sponsored by Neuroth, an Austrian audiology firm, and took place in Bern, Switzerland.  Not sure how scientific the test results were but it certainly was an interesting way to do it.