A company of firsts

Reading Time: 5 minutes
by Christopher Daniel
Published 30/11/2021

How it all began

Amplivox was founded in 1935 by Sir Edwin Stevens, in the pursuit of supporting the hearing deficiency of a close family member. Using the fairly inadequate technology that was available at the time, Mr Stevens designed the first wearable hearing aid in his back bedroom, with only £100.

The company went on to make many innovations in the acoustics industry until 1968, when the company was sold to Racal, and since then has continued to produce several innovations within the audiological industry.

The first wearable hearing aid

Prior to the first wearable hearing aid, electrical hearing aids consisted of a carbon microphone, an earphone with a headband, a battery, and connecting cords - essentially a crude version of the telephone. They were thought to be fairly ineffective, and they generally weighed 20lbs / 10kg plus, so were not easily portable.2

Mr Stevens also pioneered the early development of electronic hearing aids1 designing the first wearable electronic hearing aid, weighing in at just 10lbs / 4.5kg.1,3

It had the microphone on the lapel, the amplifier in the jacket pocket, and an earphone small enough to go into the ear. It was also the first ever aid that enabled a person suffering from hearing loss to hear general conversation in noisy environments such as the church or theatre.1

A rapid progression for hearing health

Between 1935 and 1975 solutions and innovations for those with hearing concerns improved rapidly. 

In the subsequent 40 years after Amplivox was founded, the company supplied over 400,000 electronic hearing aids, and the weight of hearing aids was reduced from 4.5 lbs to 1/20 oz.6

Many types of hearing aids went on to be developed, all designed with results and comfort in mind. Frequency amplification and tone variation was introduced, enabling hearing aids to compensate for different types of hearing loss, such as middle or inner ear deafness. 

In 1936, Automatic Volume Compression (AVC) was initiated,6 meaning hearing aids were then able to adjust to avoid overload of ‘too loud’ sounds in the case of inner ear deafness. This was a huge progression for those with sensitive hearing. 

One of the early users of Amplivox hearing aids, Earl Jellicoe, was quoted as saying to Mr Stevens “If you go on like this, you will provide greater benefit to mankind than anything I have been able to do.”1

Sir Winston Churchill

One particularly notable customer of Amplivox was Sir Winston Churchill. Edwin Stevens supplied the former Prime Minister with all of his hearing aids during the 15 years before his death in 1965. “The PM reported having better results from the Amplivox hearing aids than any others he had tried.”4

Edwin Stevens noted his experiences of meeting Sir Winston Churchill at his home in 10 Downing Street. On one particular occasion he read the Times to Sir Winston Churchill so they could test the effectiveness of the hearing aids he was trialling - the newly developed all-transistor hearing aid. Churchill told Stevens “I really am most grateful to you... I think the instrument is wonderful”4

He also wrote a letter to Edwin Stevens in which he said “I am finding the hearing aid very useful and I am using it to great advantage at dinner parties. I should like to thank you most sincerely for all the trouble you have taken in this matter”.5

Leading the way

Amplivox has been instrumental in the hearing aid industry, creating an entirely different outlook for the hard of hearing, with extensive personal, social, and economic benefits.

In 1940, at the request of the Ministry of Defence, Amplivox developed the first ever ear defenders to prevent deafness from the noise levels arising from modern warfare. Up to 1970, Amplivox had designed the widest range of defenders of any company, with a global supply.6 

In that period of time, Amplivox also went on to design and manufacture the first amplifiers with headsets to help educate deaf children - for personal and classroom use. Plus, in 1963 introduced Audiocups (noise-reducing enclosures) to the market, which are still used by health professionals all over the world today.

Developments in audiometry

During the last war, there was a need to officially test the hearing of personnel. Amplivox was the first company to import audiometers for use in the British and US services. In 1947 Amplivox designed its own audiometers, incorporating the new development of ‘differential masking noise’ and facilitating the differentiation of middle ear and inner ear deafness.

In addition to all of this, Amplivox developed a wide range of military equipment including microphones, earphones, and headsets for aircrafts and tanks – becoming almost exclusive suppliers to NATO forces.6 

Amplivox has also financed essential research at Southampton University on the prevention of deafness in the industry.

Edwin Stevens retirement

Edwin Stevens was regarded by many as an entrepreneur, designer, and innovator in vital elements of human welfare.6 He was thought by many to be instrumental in developments within the fields of hearing, testing, and preventing deafness.

He retired as Chairman of Amplivox Ltd. in 1975 at the age of 70, but was still actively engaged as a consultant and continued to devote the remainder of his life to charitable causes.2

A company of firsts

Amplivox was the first company within the hearing healthcare industry to use items such as transistors, printed circuits chips, and batteries, and has subsequently produced a significant number of innovations, including:7

  • The first wearable electronic hearing aid
  • The first amplifying equipment for the education of deaf children
  • The first audiometer for the differential test of hearing (described by the doyen of otologists as “the foundation of modern otology”)
  • The first ear defenders in the UK
  • The first communication headsets for fighting vehicles (supplying almost all NATO fighting vehicles)
  • The first Airstream Helmet for the elimination of dust in coalmining, steel-making, and agriculture,
  • …and many more

At the time of Edwin Steven’s retirement, Amplivox had become a world leader in electroacoustics with a huge range of innovative, solution-focused products.7

 

References

1From a series of documents provided by the state of Sir Edwin Stevens: ‘Early Electric Hearing Aids’

2From a series of documents provided by the state of Sir Edwin Stevens: ‘Article 3, p2’ 

3From a series of documents provided by the state of Sir Edwin Stevens: ‘Product Design and Innovation’

4From a series of documents provided by the state of Sir Edwin Stevens: ‘Supplying the Amplivox model ‘A’ transistor hearing aid to Sir Winston Churchill, Prime Minister’ 

5From a series of documents provided by the state of Sir Edwin Stevens: ‘Article 7’

6From a series of documents provided by the state of Sir Edwin Stevens: ‘Product design and innovation page, p5’

7From a series of documents provided by the state of Sir Edwin Stevens: ‘Article 8’