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How Headphones Have Evolved Since the 19th Century

By Wesley Fenlon

Headphones have been around for more than 120 years, but modern technology owes more to a pair of inventors from the 20th century.

The technology inside headphones is so cheap, today, that earbuds cost as little as $3 or $4. Apple will sell your their classic white earbuds for $25, but they also throw them in with every mobile device they sell. It's the classic march of progress: What was once a rare, expensive technology is now so easy to mass produce, it can practically be given away for free. Smithsonian Mag's Design Decoded blog decided to take a look at the history of headphones, tracing them back from the Walkman in 1979--which is probably responsible for how cheap and ubiquitous headphones are today--to the very first pair invented over a century ago.

No one is completely sure when the first headphones were invented, but Design Decoded and a blog at Schubin Cafe traced their creation back to the late 1800s. One of the first pairs of headphones was invented in Britain and used to deliver opera to people in their homes.

Photo via Aerial7.com

"In the 1890s, a British company called Electrophone created a system allowing their customers to connect into live feeds of performances at theaters and opera houses across London," writes Design Decoded. "Subscribers to the service could listen to the performance through a pair of massive earphones that connected below the chin, held by a long rod . The form and craftsmanship of these early headphones make them a sort of remote, audio equivalent of opera glasses. It was revolutionary, and even offered a sort of primitive stereo sound."

Schubin points to an even earlier invention, predating Electrophone by at least a decade: "Ezra Gilliland, who worked for both the Bell Telephone Company and Thomas Edison and was later involved in sound recordings, rigged a telephone transmitter (mouthpiece) and receiver (earpiece) into a contraption that sat on an operator’s shoulders. According to various reports, the Gilliland harness weighed between 6 and 11 lbs. It appears to have been used no later than 1881."

The "modern" headphone, though, has two important ancestors from the 20th century. Before World War I, a Utah inventor named Nathaniel Baldwin invented a pair of headphones for the Navy that sounded dramatically better than their current equipment. According to Design Decoded, he was making them by hand in his kitchen until a manufacturer set up shop in Utah and began mass producing his designs.

And then there were the Koss headphones, which introduced everyday people to stereo sound. John Koss introduced them with the Model 390 phonograph in 1958, and they immediately took off. That was essentially the birth of private music listening. Why not listen to Koss talk about them himself?