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Thaddeus Cahill's chair-mounted headphones

Bring on the Noise

• July 02, 2012 • 4:00 AM

BEFORE BEATS BY DR. DRE, before the iPod’s earbuds, before even the Sony Walkman’s headphones, there was Thaddeus Cahill’s chair-mounted device for “individual-ear reproduction” of recorded sound.

With radio becoming ever more popular, the New York City-based inventor thought people should be able to listen without disturbing others. He applied for a patent in 1931, catching the attention of Everyday Science and Mechanics magazine. (Published by radio pioneer and futurist Hugo Gernsback.)

Personal listening devices have actually been around as long as radio itself. Radio technology was often called a “wireless telephone” in the 1910s because it was used mainly for point-to-point communication. The adoption in the late 1920s of the Audion tube, which greatly amplified radio signals, made radio into an experience the family could enjoy together. By the 1930s radio had become primarily a communal experience. Cahill’s most radical improvement wasn’t the way that his device surrounded the ears, but the volume he was able to achieve by using electrically powered speakers. But he never got a chance to find out if there was a market for his auscultatory accessory. He died in 1934—a year before the patent was granted.

Matt Novak
Matt Novak writes about past visions of the future for BBC.com and Smithsonian.com.

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