The Road to the First Electric Portable Hearing Aid….and Beyond

Robert Traynor
July 14, 2015

roFought between 1861 and 1865 over the issue of slavery, the American Civil War was one of the bloodiest wars ever, with 620,000 soldiers losing their lives on both the Union and Confederate sides. Since the Confederacy lost the war, life in the southern part of the United States was difficult in the post War days.

As the South was rebuilt and readmitted to the into the Union, William Peter Hutchinson found himself a returning war veteran, having served in the Alabama Cadets, serving in various parts of Alabama during the war.  Initially, William and his wife Tracie made their home in Montrose, Alabama, but soon moved the family to Mobile to seek more opportunity  and a career as a merchandise broker and a manufacturer’s representative.  Renting a southern mansion located at 908 Government Street in Mobile, William represented many Northern Companies to others in the South during the reconstruction period and thereafter.

William and Tracie had only one son. Miller Reese Hutchinson was born August 6, 1874 in Montrose, Baldwin County, Alabama.  Miller (or possibly Hutch) attended mobile publicmr schools and developed a keen interest in mechanics and technology.  He continued his schooling at the Marion Military Academy graduating in 1890, also attending Spring Hill College before finally completing his doctorate in Electrical Engineering at Alabama Polytechnic Institute at ro1Auburn (now Auburn University).

From about the age of 10 he devoted most all of his time to manual working in pattern shops, foundries, machine shops, electrical repair shops, power houses and other mechanical/electrical areas.  He obtained his first patent at age 16 in 1892.  Most of these endeavors were conducted while he was in college and by 1897 he had learned his occupation both from both academics and actual practice.

In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone brought about significant changes for the hearing aid industry. Although the magnetic microphone used in Bell’s invention did not amplify sound, the idea aided Blake and Hughes in 1878 in theirro2 discovery of carbon transmitters, which did provide the amplification necessary in making the technology used to invent the telephone adaptable to hearing aids.

While a student, Hutchison hoped to benefit a friend, Lyman Gould,  who was deaf and mute from a childhood bout with scarlet fever. He and Gould frequently traveled the Mobile Bay Steamboats and Hutch noticed that his friend could not hear even the very loud steamboat whistles.  To help his friend, he studied hearing at Alabama Medical College  and labored for four years mrh2researching and developing a device.  His efforts led to the invention of the first portable electrical hearing aid, which he called the “Akouphone”.ro8.jpg

Hutchison obtained a patent for this device in 1895 and succeeded in improving the Gould’s hearing, but his friend never succeeded in mastering speech. Hutchinson continued to improve the device, patenting the “Akouophon” in 1898. Their fist commercial product, the Akoulallion was a carbon table model hearing aid with up to three sets of earphones. A limited number of units were sold by the Akouphone Company of Alabama at $400 (about $12,000 in today’s funds). About 1900, this instrument was completely remodeled as the Akouphone, a much more practical, portable instrument consisting of a double carbon microphone set at right angles, an earphone, and a 6 volt storage battery carried in a rubber case. The instrument sold for $60 (still about $1800 today). The even more portable version known as the “Acousticon”, patented in 1902, found the greatest success as well as gathering worldwide attention.  As most audiologists know, these devices were state of the art at the time and really the only REAL amplification system available,  but they were extremely crude instruments. They were, however, the first practical, commercially available, wearable carbon hearing aid available in the United States and, although they were finally made available in 1902, Hutchinson had received the patent as early as 1898 in Britain.

Hutchison was brought on board the Victoria and Albert in the North Sea to ro3personally fit a hearing aid to Queen Alexandria, consort of Edward VII of England. For his successful service, which was reported to have restored her hearing to within 90% of normal, he was given a royal medal, a portrait of the Queen in a jewel-encrusted frame, and a generous stipend. His invention became the basis for “Acousticon” hearing aids, a company he started in 1898/99 with J. Wilson. By 1905, Hutchinson and his partner sold his company and the rights to Kelly Monroe Turner (1859-1927) who would ro9introduce various types of Acousticon devices, some with a volume control.  Acousticon was viable until about 1984 when their technology did not keep up with the fast moving modifications in modern amplification systems.

To audiologists Miller Reese Hutchinson might be well known as the inventor of the first  portable hearing instrument.  He also invented the Klaxen horn for automobiles that had the A-ooH-Gah sound, that became standard on GM automobiles as early as 1912.

Hutchison served as an mrh3electrical engineer to the 7th and 8th Lighthouse Districts during the Spanish-American War.  During the war he was engaged in the laying of submarine cables and mines to protect American harbors in the Gulf of Mexico. He established his own engineering laboratory after the war and produced numerous innovations, such as the “Hutchison Electrical Tachometer” and the “Hutchison Spool-O-Wire Fastener“, an innovative stapling machine which he sold through his own Hutchison Office Specialties Company.

He became a consulting engineer to New York’s major financial institutions and a celebrated exhibitor at numerous commercial expositions.   In 1910Hutchison became attached to Thomas Edison’s laboratory, helping to develop a storage battery for submarines. He was made chief engineer in 1912 and served as Edison’s personal ro4representative and advisor on engineering matters. He was deeply involved in the company’s numerous advancements in sound recording and transmission and was known for providing rigorously-detailed drawings to the laboratory’s mechanics, thereby wasting no time with rough prototypes and drafts.

In 1915 Hutchison was made a charter member of the newly-created U. S. Naval Consulting Board.  Hutchison assisted in the launch of WMAV-AM at his alma mater. He donated a 2.5 kW spark gap transmitter and crystal receiver and was present in 1913 to broadcast the station’s first message, addressed to “Old Man” Edison in New Jersey.  Edison congratulated him with a telegram….Edison called his assistants “Muckers” and has referred to Hutchinson as the best Mucker of them all.

In 1918 Hutchinson left Edison to begin a new enterprise Miller Reese Hutchinson, Inc., taking with him the sales rights for the Edison Storage Battery.  The company was established to market the storage batteriesro5 and his other inventions.  Why he left is a mystery but Miller Reese Hutchison and his first wife were living apart by 1930 (ref., 1930 and 1940 censuses). According to a family tree online, he married Mary Stilwell Edison. Fragmentary evidence and obscure references indicate he either married or became close with a daughter of Thomas Edison and Edison’s first wife Mary Stilwell Edison which may have caused friction. It’s possible she was disinherited by her father. 

The Miller Reese Hutchinson, Inc.  offices were located on the 51st floor of the Woolworth Building in Manhattan (New York, USA). He continued to work on inventions in a third-floor workshop at his New Jersey estate, “Colonia,” while maintaining his “day job” as the head of his firm in New York. He also invested in real estate development and financial trading on Wall Street.

Hutchison was able to ro6combine his many interests, as well as an abidingro7 love for vigorous sport, by training himself to subsist on only 3-4 hours of sleep each night.  Among Hutchison’s later inventions were a powder-actuated rivet gun and a gasoline additive intended to reduce carbon monoxide emissions. Hutchison provided the spy camera that was used by Chicago Tribune photographer Tom Howard to secretly take pictures at the electrocution of Ruth Snyder at Sing Sing Prison on January 12, 1928 which were published in the New York Daily News the next day. Hutchison displayed the camera, now at the Smithsonian, to Birmingham photographers during a visit in 1938.

Dr. Hutchinson received a number of international honorary degrees, medals and awards during his career.  He died suddenly in February, 1944 in his home in Manhattan at the age of 67.


As a young professor in the mid to late 1970s and for many years thereafter teaching hearing aid courses.  In lecture I referred in passing to Miller Reese Hutchinson as the inventor of the first portable electric hearing aid.  Of course, we discussed the carbon microphones that allowed for his invention and how they worked and the advantages and disadvantages of these instruments to the hearing impaired.  I have enjoyed “getting to know him” and as Paul Harvey would say learning the “REST OF THE STORY”! – RMT


Updated February 27, 2017.



Bauman, N. (2017).  The Mystery of Miller Reese Hutchinson’s Coronation Medal.  Center for Hearing Loss Help. The Hearing Aid Museum.

Bham WIKI (2010).  Miller Reese Hutchinson.  Retrieved July 12, 2015.

Fowler, J. (1901). Phreno-Psychograph of Miller Reese Hutchinson:  The Expert Electrician.  International magazine on Mental Health, Health and Hygiene.  Retrieved July 12, 2015: 

Shepherdson, G., (1917).  Telephone Apparatus:  An Introduction to the development Theory.  Retrieved July 12, 2015: 

Find A Grave Memorial# 125039936 (2014.  Miller Reese Hutchinson.  Retrieved July 12, 2015: 

Virdi, J. (2014).  The time-travelling, vote gathering miraculous acousticon.  JAI VIRDI  Retrieved July 13, 2015: 




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