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

December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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