History of Headphones and Earbuds

There is no surprise that today almost everyone owns or has owned a pair of headphones or earbuds. Even though constant innovation in technology has brought impressive advancement, not many people are aware that the concept of headphones dates back to 1890. From Sony’s Walkman introduced in 1979 to Beats by Dre today, these devices have changed the overall listening experience.

1890: The Early Days

During the early days, the headphones were devices that were used for work purposes before they became affiliated with pop culture and leisure. During the 1890s, operators of switchboards in America used a headset that was a frame of wire featuring a single bud of black color for one ear at a time.  The switchboard operators usually comprised of women who connected telephone lines between offices and homes by continuously connecting and disconnecting switches. Today, the headphones jacks that you see draw inspiration directly from these switchboards that also featured jacks in which the cables were plugged and unplugged.

1895: Birth of Electrophone

The year 1895 saw technology taking a step further when the electrophone was created to enjoy the live performance on headsets using the same switchboard technology. The electrophone was something like a cross between a tennis ratchet and a stethoscope, and this time around, it was made for both ears using a hand-held stick. However, there was a significant difference in terms of how they were used back then as compared to how they are used today. Back then, the electrophone was used for group listening activities. Whereas, today, the headphones and earbuds are used for the opposite purpose i.e., isolating oneself from the outside world to focus on music solely.

1910: Nathaniel Baldwin’s Modern Invention

The modern headphones you see today were the invention of Nathaniel Baldwin, who was a regular churchgoer and wanted to enhance the sermon experience by amplifying the sound at his Mormon Temple. The headphones invented by Nathaniel Baldwin had a wire copper that was near to be a mile long in each ear cup. These earcups were designed to render sound without the use of electricity and set the foundation for large cup-shaped modern headphones of today.

Baldwin’s invention took off when it caught the attention of the U.S Navy as it had purchased the headphones in huge sums for the soldiers who were participating in World War 1. These headphones proved to be a significant improvement for soldiers who wished to broadcast and communicate from locations that were distant as compared to the hand-held electronic headset. Moreover, these headphones allowed adjustment as well through the spoke shaped brass made antennas on each earphone.

1958: The Year of John Koss

This was the year when inventor John Koss stepped ahead with his invention of the very first stereo headphones that were hi-end. It  was an attempt by Koss to showcase the ability and features of his portable phonograph that included a “privacy switch” for both silent and personal listening. An interesting fact about the headphones was that they became much more popular within the military personnel who were returning from the war.

Koss’s version of headphones was the modification of Baldwin’s headphones in a way that his headphones featured bigger headphone cups and advanced stereo technology. As a great addition, he added thin leather to the headsets along with padding to provide comfort. The 1960’s jet age took his idea invention even further as Koss’s headphones featured broader headbands, high-tech look, and ear cups that were noise blocking, reminiscing the headgear of fighter pilots.

1966: Koss Collaboration & Pop Culture

Equipment Electronics Electricity Audio Close-up

Koss was continuously working on his headphone’s marketing which allowed him and his product to match the pace of ever-evolving pop culture throughout the 1960s and 1970s. John Koss’s headphones were way ahead of time. He later collaborated with the Beatles and introduced a co-branded product which made the headphones more recognisable. It was until the launch of the Beatlephones that allowed the headphones to enter teen culture thereby captivating a huge audience.

1969: Sennheiser’s Entry

Sennheiser entered the market in 1969 with its version of headphones that would allow some sound to enter. The Sennheiser HD414 in that aspect were the first headphones to feature cups that were ventilated, thereby allowing the outside sounds to come through. You can say that a modern-day version of this is the ‘ambient sound’ feature allows the sounds nearby you to enter even with the music on.

1979: Sony Walkman’s Release

Sony in 1979 had released the Walkman, which featured a cassette stereo that was portable along with headphones that were connected by a metal band that was single & thin. Furthermore, the earphones were covered with foam as well. This device allowed the user to enjoy music outdoors while maintaining privacy. In addition to that, not only did the Walkman have one but two headphone jacks for sharing music.

1990: The Introduction of Portable Music Devices

The introduction of Portable music devices, such as portable CD players, gave rise to earbuds as well. This was the time when manufacturers were focusing on developing minimalist music players, which also meant that the headphones would become both smaller and cheaper as well.

2004: The Lifting of the Bluetooth Fashion Curse

Even though Bluetooth technology was invented back in 1999, it was 2004 when the wire was removed. Back then Bluetooth was more like a fashion accessory as businessmen could be seen wearing them while connected to their Blackberries. However, later on, during the 2000s and early 2010, Beats and Bose began releasing Bluetooth featuring headphones that provided a more fashionable and classy look.

2010s: Headphones Everywhere

As the iPhone and several other smartphones captivated the world, the same was the case with headphones as well. This time there were more brand collaborations such as Lady Gaga’s HeartBeats that were designed to be diamond cut earbuds for everyday use. The neckband headphones introduced back in the 90s became more minimalist and sophisticated such as in the case of Plantronics Backbeat Fit headphones. From this moment onwards, it was quite clear that the upcoming headphones and earbuds would become even more minimalist and sophisticated.

2017: Apple Airpods

In 2017 Apple introduced its Airpods and devised a new roadmap for a portless feature. With the removal of a headphone jack, Apple set the clock in motion and it was only a matter of time before other companies started following the suit. The Airpods are two Bluetooth earphones with a tube-like structure towards the rear-end. Even though back in 2001, the sinuous white cord of Apple earbuds made it a signature selling point, but today the Airpods have become the go-to tech-accessory for people of all classes. The AirPods also come with a sleek charging box that can easily fit in your pocket and makes the overall experience seamless. AirPod’s success is a clear sign that the headphone designs will continue to evolve and may adopt even more radical designs in the not-so-distant future.

Through it all, both headphones and earbuds have maintained their essential functionality over the years. From the very first headphones to John Koss, Sony Walkman, Sennheiser, Beats, and now AirPods, every invention has continued to redefine what was left untapped by the bygone era. Until there is a new development in the world of headphones, they remain an essential part of our lives.