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During the past century, human ears have enjoyed less freedom than ever before, but more music, thanks to the invention of headphones. In 1910, a Nathaniel Baldwin invented headphones in the kitchen of his Utah home, forever subjecting our ears to the shackles of small speakers.
Aside from allowing you to furtively listen to the latest Carly Rae Jepsen single, headphones enable people to privately and individually interact with media, even when in a noisy room or a crowded subway. Headphones are also crucial tools used for recording music, and producing films, TV and radio programming.
Here is a timeline of how we’ve gone from Baldwin’s “Baldy Phones” to Apple’s
earbuds EarPods and “Beats by Dre.”
1910: Nathaniel Baldwin Invents the First Headphones
The legend states that Lt. Comdr. A. J. Hepburn of the U.S. Navy received for prototype for a pair of telephones fashioned into a headset, along with a letter from Nathaniel Baldwin written with purple ink on blue and pink paper. After initially disregarding the message, Hepburn tested the device and found that it worked surprisingly well to transmit sound.
The Navy began to ask for more headphones from Baldwin, who could only accept orders of 10 at a time because he was producing them in his kitchen.
If it’s not evident from his choice of stationery and writing utensil, Baldwin was an interesting fellow. He was a fundamentalist Mormon who studied at Brigham Young Academy (later renamed Brigham Young University), and eventually earned an electrical engineering degree from Stanford.
He returned to BYU as a professor but was fired for speaking out in favor of polygamy, a practice which the Mormon Church renounced in 1890. (Though he endorsed polygamy, he had only one wife.)
1958: John C. Koss Introduces SP3 Stereophones, Made For Music
Until this point, people used headphones almost exclusively for radio communication.
John Koss was born and raised in Wisconsin. He got married in 1952, at which time he started a business using a cash wedding gift with which him and his bride were supposed to buy a sofa, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
While introducing a portable phonograph he wanted to rent to patients in Milwaukee hospitals, he revealed the original Koss SP3 Stereophones. Initially intended to be a sidebar, the headphones proved revolutionary because their sound quality made them optimal for listening to music. The Koss Corporation, located in Milwaukee, is still making headphones today.
1979: Sony Releases ‘Walkman,’ Headphones Go on a Diet
Before portable music players, headphones tended to be big. Baldwin’s original set weighed upwards of a pound.
Koss’ stereophones were circumaural, meaning the earpads would literally engulf your ears. It made sense at the time. “Audiophiles” could listen to the latest Beatles, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin albums in the comfort of their homes, and the bulbus design of their headphones helped to block outside noise.
With the help of the Sony “Walkman,” recorded music soon liberated itself from the home stereo, creating a need for more portable headphones. Conveniently, a lightweight set of MDR-3L2 headphones was included with the portable cassette player. As opposed to Koss’ circumaural headphones, Sony’s were supra-aural, meaning the earpads pressed against the ears.
1989: Dr. Amar Bose Introduces the First Noise-Reducing Headset
On a flight home from Zurich in 1978, Dr. Amar Bose tried an early set of electronic headphones that were newly onboard for passenger entertainment — but he could barely hear anything with the overwhelming cabin noise. He returned to Boston and set up a research program at Bose Corporation (which he founded in 1964), to investigate how ambient noise could be reduced with active noise cancellation. The Noise Reduction Technology Group (NRTG) grew out of that program, and in 1989, the company introduced the first noise-reduction headset, designed for the aviation industry.
2001: Apple iPod Includes Earbuds, Which Now Total 600 Million
The trend towards smaller and more portable headphones eventually led to earbuds and in-earphones, which only differ in the degree to which they wedge into the ear canal.
In 2001, Apple introduced the iPod to the world. The iPod, and later iPhone and iPad, comes with a now-iconic set of basic white earbuds. A decade later, iPod sales have topped 300 million. Begin to do the math, totaling sales of iPods, iPhones and iPads, and you begin to realize there are an astronomical number of Apple earbuds in circulation.
During the announcement of a long-awaited upgrade the company’s stock headset at the iPhone 5 unveiling on Sept. 12, Apple said that it had shipped 600 million sets of the first generation of earbuds — that’s roughly one for every 12 people on the planet. Regardless of your opinion on the quality of the product, those earbuds get around.
2008: Beats by Dr. Dre Hits the Market
Hip hop artist and producer Dr. Dre teamed up with Interscope Chairman Jimmy Iovine to launch Beats by Dr. Dre, helping to solidifying headphones as a fashion statement. The brand has recruited celebrities, including Will.i.am, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Lebron James, to endorse the products. Today, Beats by Dr. Dre has 63% market share in U.S. for headphones priced over $100.
2011: Sennheiser Sells $40,000 Orpheus Headphones, World’s Most Expensive
At an audio show in Seoul, South Korea, the German headphone company Sennheiser unveiled the world’s most expensive headphones. The company released 300 sets of the Orpheus headphones, which were priced at 30,000 Euros, or roughly $41,000 a piece.
If you’re still on the fence about making that big of an investment, try them out with the following video.
2012: Apple Redefines Earbuds with the EarPods
Headphones have come a long way in the past 100 years, revolutionizing the way we consume media and the way we communicate. In addition to sets that transmit with extremely high fidelity, other notable advancements include wireless headphones, Bluetooth headsets and headsets that include a microphone which can be connected to telephones or computers.
As portable media consumption continues to rise with smartphones and tablets, the need for headphones will be greater than ever.