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).
Webster’s Otaphone is constructed of pure silver, painted the beige to match the skin of the wearer, and shaped into a curve to be placed in the back of the ear. A small hook secures the device on the ear. The design allows the auricle (the external part of the ear) to be projected forward to collect sound waves, much as if the wearer was cupping the ear. Webster further adds that the warmth created by the close contact of the metal with the skin could also stimulate the acuity of hearing (Goldstein 343). Though the Otaphone might appear as a “fanciful and fallacious” idea, Webster actually applied theories of the ear and sound conduction that was available to him during the 1830s.
This particular version dates to 1860 and is part of The Central Institute for the Deaf-Max A. Goldstein Historic Devices for Hearing Collection (Item VC703086). At the underside of the device, the words “WEBSTER’S R PATENT” and a dragonhead are inscribed. Curiously, there is little information about the dragonhead mark. It is highly likely that the inscription was the mark of the manufacturer, as an identification mark, rather than a decorative item applied by the wearer. The beige paint has been chipped from time and perhaps wear. The Otaphone would likely have been worn by individuals with mild hearing loss who did not want to make their deafness widely known—the design of the device allowed it to be easily concealed in the hair or camouflaged by a hat.