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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.

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