Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The World’s First Earbud Headphones

• September 13, 2012 • 12:04 PM

Apple may have popularized the earbud, but these ear-mounted speakers have roots to the Roaring ’20s.

Earbud headphones of yesteryear (May 1926 Science and Invention)

Yesterday Apple announced its latest and greatest in electronic toys and tools. While most tech writers thought the updates were evolutionary rather than revolutionary in nature, Apple did update one piece of hardware that hasn’t really changed much (remote and mic aside) since the iPod was originally released in 2001: their iconic white earbud headphones. Apple’s EarPods are said to follow three years of design research and development, breaking new ground in sound and comfort.

Earbuds helped shape Apple’s comeback in the early 2000s, which was defined as much by marketing as it was new design. But as closely as those white earbuds are associated with Apple, it didn’t invent this style of headphone.

Personal listening devices have been around for well over a century, and earbud-style headphones are almost as old. The May 1926 issue of Science and Invention magazine included a brief article about a new pair of earbud headphones—the oldest mention I’ve ever found. The magazine touts many benefits of these headphones that echo the preferences of today: they’re lighter, they take up less space, and they’re more comfortable than bulky headphones in hot weather.

The full text of the brief article in Science and Invention is below.

Those who, due to difficulty in hearing, operate radio receiving sets requiring the use of headphones, usually find that the wearing of these phones becomes quite a burden, after having used them for several hours at a stretch. Particularly is this true in warm weather, when excessive perspiration at the ears is present, caused by the phones covering them. Then too, if the phones are very heavy, they are an unpleasant weight on the head, and unless the headband is properly adjusted, the receivers are liable to press against the ears causing distress. The tiny receiver that is illustrated at the right has recently been designed and placed on the market and is said to overcome practically all of the difficulties found with standard size phones. These new midget reproducers are said to be quite efficient and to give faithful tonal qualities to all sounds. They are so light in weight and small in size, that they can be placed directly in the outer ear channel, and they will stay there without any retaining band or clamp of any kind. One of our illustrations shows these receivers in use and how they are placed in the ears. The other pictures show the various essential parts. Standard receiver design practice has been followed in miniature.

These small phones are made with a double pole electro-magnet and utilize a mica diaphragm with a soft iron armature. In this way, the best possible reproduction of sound is obtained with the least distortion.

The earbuds obviously didn’t fare well in the 1920s; it would take nearly 80 years before they would become popular, but this reminds us that there is rarely a new idea in the tech world.

As I said, I haven’t seen an example of earbud headphones earlier than 1926 (and I highly doubt such exist), but if you have I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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

More From Matt Novak

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.