Most of the current generation of practicing audiologists learned the history of hearing aids, not from the pages of the Internet sites, but from Dr. Kenneth W. Berger’s treatise on the history of hearing aids. The Hearing Aid: Its Operation and Development was first published some 45 years ago in 1970 by the National Hearing Aid Society (now the International Hearing Aid Society).
In a discussion of the first hearing aids, Ken Berger (1970, 1974) stated that, “We might guess that the first man-made hearing aid took one of two forms. It may have been a hollowed out animal horn or a broken sea shell at the ear to collect and concentrate more sound energy. Or the first hearing aid may have been a large fig leaf rolled like a tube, or perhaps a length of cane, which would serve to concentrate sound energy through a limiting pathway to the ear.”
The first patented hearing aid was obtained in Britain by Alphonso William Webster in 1836 for the Otaphone, designed to simulate the cupped hand over the ear. The first company to produce these devices was F.C. Rein in London. That company was established by Frederick C Rein in 1800 and was the earliest firm known to manufacture hearing aids on a commercial basis.
F.C Rein was a prolific maker and purveyor of non-electric hearing aids, such as ear trumpets, acoustic urns, head scoops, and speaking tubes for churches. It changed its name to FC Rein & Son in 1866. The company invented its own designs and marketed the configurations of other inventors. It was based in central London, originally at 108 Strand, one of the main thoroughfares in the city of Westminster in central London. It moved to 30 Charing Cross Road in 1916. At one time, F.C Rein & Son was the world’s largest manufacturer of mechanical hearing devices, and some of them rather bizarre. It is hard to believe but F.C. Rein & Son was in business until 1963. Some say that they actually still sold these devices until 1976.
What’s an Acoustic Throne?
One of the more bazaar devices designed by F.C. Rein was the acoustic throne made by special order for King John VI of Portugal. The throne appears to be a “take off” of the acoustic chair first invented by M. Duguet for the incurably deaf in France in 1706.
The real story of the acoustic throne, however, begins with the birth of a child, João Maria José Francisco Xavier de Paula Luís António Domingos Rafael, in Lisbon, Portugal in May, 1767. According to Pappas (2009), folklore has John (also known as Joao)as a rather uncultured youth, but according to Jorge Pedreira e Costa, he received a rigorous education.
While a French ambassador of the time painted him in unfavorable colors, seeing him as hesitant and dim, the record of this period of his life is too vague for historians to form any definitive picture. According to Portuguese royal tradition, however, his tutors in arts and sciences would have included Fathers Manuel do Cenáculo, Antônio Domingues do Paço and Miguel Franzini; his music masters were the organist João Cordeiro da Silva and the composer João Sousa de Carvalho; and his riding instructor Staff Sergeant Carlos Antônio Ferreira Monte. Pappas also presents that little is known of the total substance of his education but surely he received instruction in religion, law, French, and etiquette; presumably learning history through the works of Duarte Nunes de Leão and João de Barros.
While second in line for the throne of Portugal, his brother died and he became the heir to throne. When his mother, Queen Maria I, was declared insane in 1799 John took over the Portuguese government as Prince Regent in 1799.
With the Napoleonic Wars abounding in Europe and getting closer to Portugal, John moved the seat of government to Brazil in 1808 and continued there until 1821. During these tumultuous times he ruled the Portuguese empire from Rio de Janeiro.
Although there were rises and falls going on in Portugal, he was able dodge most of the Peninsular Wars (1807-1814) between England, Spain, Portugal and Napoleon. At the death of his mother in 1816, he returned to Lisbon as King John VI. But by then he was very hard of hearing.
During the 1800s people began to grow self-conscious of their hearing aids, as evidenced by new strides to conceal them. Mechanical devices were therefore integrated into collars, headwear, clothing, and especially voluminous hairstyles. Some people tried to hide them in full beards, or otherwise covered the devices in flesh or hair colored enamel.
Realizing he needed a device to help him communicate better, King John VI of Portugal (also called King Goa as Portugal had colonies in India) commissioned Frederick Rein Company to make an acoustic chair in 1819, which was delivered a year later and used in both Brazil and Lisbon.
Frederick C. Rein was especially well suited to manufacture a special device royalty. Since the chair was commissioned for use by royalty, Rein had to think about a way to reflect the important status of the user. To that end, he hollowed out the arms of the chair and carved them to represent the open mouths of grotesque regal-looking lions. The arm design also acted as sound receivers much like that of smaller ear trumpets. The sound then traveled to the back of the chair, where a tube–placed in the king’s ear carried the sound to its final destination–the King’s ear!
King John VI used the setup until his death in 1826. The chair was equipped with a large receiving apparatus concealed beneath the seat where sound was conveyed via a single tube hidden in the back of the chair. Visitors to the King were required to kneel before the chair and speak directly into the animal heads. The king is thought to have used his acoustic chair when holding audiences with noblemen and commoners during his time living in Brazil and in Lisbon. This custom was called ‘beijo-mao’ and made the king very popular, so it was important that he could hear and respond to the concerns of his people.
A replica of the original chair made for John VI of Portugal is now housed at the Amplivox/Ultratone corporate office in London.
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 the Acoustic Throne almost as a joke. If, however, it is the early 19th century, you have issues of state, movement of the government, and other major discussions that are necessary, the use of current technology by the best manufacturer, F.C. Rein to invent a special device that semi-disguises the hearing loss is very necessary. An acoustic throne make very reasonable sense and no longer seems like a bazaar device. I have enjoyed getting to King Joao and F.C. Rein just a bit better and, as Paul Harvey would say, learning the “REST OF THE STORY”! – RMT
Bauman, N. (2015). The Online Hearing Aid Museum. Stewartstown, PA Retrieved July 28, 2015.
Berger, K. (1970). The Hearing Aid: Its operation and development. National Hearing Aid Society.
Hawkins, K. (2014). Hearing aid chair fit for a king. Ouch. Retrieved July 28, 2015 Kent State University (2015).
The Hearing Aid Museum (2015). Kent State University, Kent, Ohio
Pappas, D., (2009). The Napoleonic Wars and Brazilian Independence. Retrieved July 28, 2015.
Images: Central Institute for the Deaf (2015). Max A. Goldstein Historic Devices for Hearing Collection. Webster’s Otaphone: A patented Hearing Aid. John VI of Portugal’s hearing aid integrated throne. Washington University School of Medicine.