News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 23, 2012

HISTORICAL TREASURE: Ear trumpet will help you listen up

By Michael Moroz
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — In a basement cabinet display of numerous antiquated medical devices rests a rather primitive, metal, multi-sectioned tube with a shower-head-shaped terminus. It is called an ear trumpet, and while its sophistication and practicality leave a lot to be desired, one can certainly appreciate its apparent user-friendliness. It acts literally as a funnel to compress sound waves and increase their intensity into the ear canal.

Inceptions of this crude device for the hearing-impaired began roughly in the mid-17th to early 18th centuries. In fact, Beethoven is documented to have begun using a similar device around 1812 with a resonating plate to aid in deciphering the different sound waves emitted by musical notes. His hearing loss began sometime before that and he continued his musical genius long after, yet the notion that he composed and conducted symphonies completely deaf is still perpetuated and not altogether accurate. The surprising efficiency and ubiquity of the ear trumpet as an aid is supported by the many stylistic examples ranging from the ornate to the strictly utilitarian throughout its nearly 250 year span of existence. Inventions around the turn of the 20th century using electricity and the incipient telephone would have quickly relegated the ear trumpet an arcane piece of technology and as electrical devices progressed, interests in masking one’s impairment became imperative. The 1950s saw the creation of aids disguised as a pair of eyeglasses or transistor radios.

The museum’s example dates to around 1820 and originally belonged to Mary E. Stader. Donated to the museum in 1961 by her granddaughter, Mrs. C.E. Rippetoe, the ear trumpet is just one of thousands of artifacts housed there that harken back to a simpler time when all that was needed to hear your grandchild’s first words were a mere arm’s length away and finding the right battery was of no concern. Of course, to hear little Johnny or Joanna in stereo meant two trumpets.