Nowadays, headphones are one of those peripherals that the vast majority of people around the globe take for granted. They have seamlessly ingrained themselves into the functionality of our culture. We utilize them for pleasure when we prefer to listen to music in the privacy of our own headspace, like when going out for a run, for instance, or while traveling via train or plane. We use them for work, perhaps now more than ever as so many people are working from home. I’m sure headphones have saved countless couples from competing with the audio filtering from either one’s zoom calls. The point is, is that headphones are everywhere and they have become not only a well-loved but in many cases, an essential accessory to own. So how did our society of headphone lovers come to be? When and Where did headphones first get their start?
RADIO BEFORE RADIO
The first headphone-like devices were earpieces that were worn by telephone operators beginning in 1890. However, these first “headphones” didn’t sit on one’s head, they sat perched on a person’s shoulder and the earpiece portion extended up to reach a person’s ear. Those early operators should really be congratulated for wearing them during their shifts because they weighed a whopping 10 pounds.
Around the same time in 1890s England, a nifty little device that also came with an earpiece (which was oddly reminiscent of a stethoscope) was invented. It was called the Electrophone. The Electrophone enabled its user to dial into a switchboard network that would connect them to an array of live theater performances across London. Essentially, it was radio before radio even existed. What’s even more interesting about the Electrophone is that in order to operate one a person had to pay a subscription fee of five pounds per month, making the Electrophone the world’s first subscription service. Talk about foreshadowing.
LOOKING MORE MODERN
In 1910 an engineer, Nathaniel Baldwin, was fiddling at his kitchen table. His tinkering resulted in the first pair of headphones to resemble the ones worn today. His invention made it possible for people to speak to each other via radio communique. The United States Navy got word of Baldwin’s novel invention and promptly ordered 100 pairs to equip their fleet with. This was a tall order to fill because Baldwin had to make each headpiece by hand. Sadly, Baldwin never got the credit he deserved for creating the first modern pair of headphones because he never filed an official patent.
The first stereo headphones were a huge game-changer. They were invented in 1958 by a man named John Koss. The very first pair were quite rudimentary and were essentially made of two mini speakers surrounded by foam to buffer the sound that would emit from them and then encased in cardboard.
Despite their early look being a bit primitive, these initial stereo headphones were the thing that rocked the headphone industry because they were the first ones created for the sole purpose of listening to music. Prior to their invention headphones were largely only used for communication purposes. Those stereo headphones were the catalyst that steered headphones in the direction of how we primarily use them today.
The year was 1979 and Sony took the world by storm when they released the now-iconic Walkman. Stereo is what made headphones for listening to music. The Walkman is what made headphones for listening to music on the go. With the introduction of the Walkman also came the introduction of portable headphones. Suddenly you could listen to your favorite songs while walking down the street instead of being jacked into a stationary record player or sound system at home.
Just a year after the Walkman’s release in 1979, Sony introduced earbuds in 1980 as another headphone option to use with its Walkman. The earbuds were instantly popular. They were especially liked amongst those who preferred not to mess up their hairdos with the headphones that sat atop one’s head.
Earbuds had been around since 1980 and always sold measurably well. However, it wasn’t until a little thing happened in 2001 that would send the popularity of earbuds through the stratosphere. That year was the year that revolutionized the music industry. That year was the year that Apple introduced the world to the iPod.
Suddenly not only could you take your music on the go with you, but you could do so without having to lug around a case full of CDs. Now, you could load hundreds of songs on a single device and have them all fit nicely inside your pocket. The iPod was an instantaneous hit and so were the little pair of white earbuds that accompanied them. In the years following the iPod’s release, there was a good chance that just walking down the street you would see a flurry of passerbys donning the signature white pair.
FASHION AND REFINING
After Apple had taken the portable music industry to new heights with the release of the iPod, many companies were looking to capitalize on the success. They did so by positioning the headphones that they were selling as fashion symbols and status statements. Headphones were the new it thing, and the ones that you chose to wear communicated to others something about yourself. Because of this, almost all at once, the market became flooded with new headphones. Beats by Dre, initially released in 2008, is one of the more prominent examples of these fashion-focused headphones.
Since the mid-2000s headphones have continued to see multiple improvements and refinements. Today you have industry leaders like Bose, Sony, and Apple who offer both in-ear and over-the-head options outfitted with premium audio, sound isolation, and noise-canceling technology. However, some individuals still choose to proudly rock those signature wired white earbuds that first accompanied the iPod over two decades ago. Headphones have become integrated into our daily lives more so than ever before. And given the affinity we have for them as a public, it is likely in the years to come they will only evolve and be refined further to match the advancing pace of technology. Headphones aren’t going anywhere, and that’s nice to hear.