Rhodri Marsden's Interesting Objects: The Audiphone

The device was granted a patent 135 years ago this week and offered a 30 decibel boost to ambient noises

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The Independent Tech

* Richard Silas Rhodes had suffered from deafness since a severe illness at the age of 15. He loathed the ear trumpet – the traditional hearing aid of the era – and quack cures such as swallowing mercury, putting an elk's claw in one's ear or pumping smoke up one's nose held little appeal. There has to be a better way, he thought. So, at the age of 36, he invented the Audiphone.

* The device, roughly the size of a long-playing vinyl record and made of hardened rubber, was granted a patent 135 years ago this week. The idea came to Rhodes as he idly put his watch in his mouth – as you do – and observed that he could hear the ticking louder when he bit upon it. You pressed the Audiphone against your upper teeth, and as sound waves hit the device they were passed through the cranial bones, offering a 30 decibel boost to ambient noises.

* Rhodes produced a pamphlet which proclaimed 'GOOD NEWS FOR THE DEAF' – but the truth was that the Audiphone was terribly cumbersome. Hearing aids were almost valued more for their invisibility than their effectiveness, with prototypes of the day hidden in people's clothing and, notably, their furniture. So Rhodes developed an Audiphone with 'ornamental features' to make it look a bit like a fan. At the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, he received a medal for his invention.

* A couple of years later, however, electricity began to revolutionise the hearing aid. Miller Reese Hutchison's new-fangled Acousticon made Rhodes's invention look faintly preposterous – and opinion was divided among teachers of deaf children as to whether the Audiphone was even any good. Rhodes died in 1902, hit as he walked along a Wisconsin railroad track by the signal staff of a passing engine. Tragically, he did not hear it coming.