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Earbuds are a simple and iconic accessory people have been using for decades to block out the world and lose ourselves in our favorite songs, podcasts, or even movies and TV shows.
It’s not uncommon to see someone at a coffee shop or library streaming something with their earbuds jammed in their ears. It’s a product we use daily, but we don’t really think about where it came from; however, today we will answer the question: who invented earbuds?
Earbuds have a history dating back to the 1800s, but they weren’t always the sleek design we’ve known from Apple Earbuds. The first thing to know is typically headphones have two distinct styles: in-ear or over-the-ear.
Earbuds fall into the in-ear category, which according to accounts for over 50% of all headphone retail revenue (54%). Over-the-ear headphones came in at half that (24%), leaving the last quarter of revenue to gaming headphones (8%), which are a larger over-the-ear style that cancel out background noise to heighten immersion, and significantly less popular styles such as wireless (8%), behind-the-neck (4%), and clip-on headphones (2%).
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Starting back in 1850, one of the first in-ear listening devices was a stethoscope which had ivory tips that doctors’ would insert in their ears to listen to a patient’s heartbeat.
At this point, we haven’t gotten to who invented earbuds in a traditional sense, which would be for listening to music, but Thomas Edison used the stethoscope tips with his phonograph, which used wax cylinders to produce sound.
Several decades later, people were listening to recorded music via “ear tubes,” and some machines came with several sets to ensure multiple people could listen at the same time.
Then in 1891, a Parisian inventor named Ernest Mercadier patented an in-ear adjunct to the telephone, which he called a “bi-telephone.” It was a pair of tips wrapped in rubber, which was said to block out background noises.
In the first half of the 20th century, more advanced designs were being used with hearing aids, and a short article was published in the May 1926 issue of “Science and Invention” on in-ear headphones.
It boasted the same preferences for headphones that exist today. which is a lighter, compact, and more comfortable design. Now, we’re getting much closer to who invented earbuds as we imagine them.
Who Invented Earbuds
Fast forward to the 1980s when the Sony Walkman was released, and consumers who were using headphones more often with a portable listening device wanted something easy to transport and easy to wear.
This also came around the time when telemarketing exploded; according to the New York Times, the telemarketing industry grew 800% from 1985 to 1995, which meant headsets were being made with similar needs of comfort and sleekness, especially because they were being worn over several hours.
It was a common problem that earbuds didn’t fit properly and were often too tight, so manufacturers wrapped them in foam or sent out kits to make molds of person’s inner ear, which would then get sent back to the company to make into a pair of customized probes.
According to Charlie Sorrel in his article “The Original White Earbud, Over 40 Years Old,” he claims the old in-ear headphones he used with his portable radio were tinny and often hurt his ears because stereo sound didn’t transmit in the same way it does today.
Finally, in 2001, Apple released their first white iPods with the original earbuds. This classic iconic design stuck with Apple until 2012 when they were redesigned, but before we talk about the redesign, let’s discuss what makes earbuds so popular.
Why Are They So Popular?
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Earbuds have been around a lot longer than they’ve been popular, but almost everyone today is plugged into headphones for something. Whether it’s taking a call, listening to music, streaming a show; they’ve become a cultural accessory that seems to mean more than just entertainment.
They are ways to cut off yourself off from distraction and from people. Introverts or people with anxiety disorder often use listen to music with headphones to relax. It helps them stay calm when the world gets too overwhelming.
As a society, we’ve become more comfortable being alone and being with ourselves rather than interacting with others. Because of social media, we’re more connected to each other, but face-to-face interaction is almost a thing of the past.
We would rather enjoy personal interests while messaging a friend online than to go see them. Earbuds are a tangible and visible way for us to show that we don’t want a face-to-face interaction.
Music is integral to our culture; almost everyone you ask can name a song or band they love. Because of inventions like the Apple iPod, a whole library worth of digitized music can be at our fingertips.
Music is personal, and people find their own meanings and ways to relate to the melody or the lyrics.
In 1953, Ray Bradbury wrote “Farenheit 451,” and he predicted earbuds. He wrote about a futuristic radio that would be “a hidden wasp snug in its special pink warm nest,” which would transmit “an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk, coming in on the shore of [your] unsleeping mind.”
He was right; earbuds bring the sound directly into your ear. They allow you to drown in waves of music and noise while the world around you fades out of existence.
There’s an addictive quality to that, and we crave it, that’s why we plug in and listen. It’s something we can’t get enough of.
The Apple EarPod
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The 2012 redesign of the Apple Earbuds got a fancy new name: EarPods. The design is rounder with a narrow protruding cone-like tip that directs the sound deeper into your ears.
Jonathan Ives, the current Chief Design Officer (CDO) at Apple, is responsible for the new look, which is widely accepted as one of the best earphone designs.
Ives has been an employee with Apple since 1992, and in 1997 he became the Senior Vice President of Industrial Design. His first project was designing the iMac.
Apple has promoted and marketed themselves as the best and most technologically advanced company with world renown products, from Earpods to iPhones.
As a society, we’ve mostly accepted that as a truth, with only certain groups who boycott their products in favor of Android or Google Pixel because Apple is elitist. According to the tech website Engadget, “The key thing about Apple’s EarPods is that they’re tolerable to use.”
Not a great statement of overwhelming enthusiasm, but he doesn’t hate them. They hit all the key preferences for earphones being lightweight, compact, and comfortable.
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So, the answer to the burning question that’s been haunting your dreams at night: who invented earbuds? It depends on which version of earbuds you think started it all.
There have been many kinds of in-ear headphones over the years and in-ear listening devices. We’ve had everything from design wrapped in foam or plastic to molds made to fit people’s ears.
Inventions and product development have an evolution, and as you can see from the timeline, original earbuds or in-ear listening devices were used for hearing aids or for doctors’ to listen to your heart.
Thomas Edison was using an in-ear device with his phonograph, which led to ear tubes. However, the entertainment and cultural impact of earbuds didn’t really begin until the Sony Walkman, and portable listening devices became a prevalent thing.
Once Apple released their original iPod, which could store hundreds of songs on one device, using headphones and especially earbuds became a part of our culture. So, who invented earbuds?
Apple and their design team headed by Jonathan Ives did, and it changed the entire game. They will forever be iconic and recognized as part of our cultural identity.
We’ve changed how we communicate with each other. Today’s society is simultaneously more connected and less interactive. Our world is both bigger and smaller because we can communicate over great distances, but we do it with our portable wireless phones and laptops.
We’ve opened a world on a screen and closed off the real thing, and we did it with earbuds; plugged ourselves into a world of our own design.
Earbuds are a symbol of who we are as a society, and it’s neither good nor bad, but technology has changed us, and the earbud is a very specific technology that made an impact no one ever expected.
It closed us off to the world, to people in society, to everything that’s not being pumped directly into our brains through digitized sound waves. That sounds sinister, but it doesn’t have to be. It makes the culture and time we exist in a very different place than it was only mere decades ago.
That’s who invented earbuds; let’s not talk about the decision to remove the iPhone headphone jack and go completely wireless with Bluetooth. That’s a debate for another day.