The Crazy Evolution Of Earbuds

Getting sound to your ear wirelessly has been a long journey.


Good ideas have a way of continually evolving.

Hindsight is wonderful. We can look back over past inventions and proclaim the ones that were successful to be obvious, and those that weren’t as being stupid or flawed. Many successful inventions started off being flawed, but through demand and perseverance, those flaws were eliminated. At the time, I am sure most people thought Da Vinci was at least half crazy, and his inventions absurd. Some of them took a long time to come to fruition.

There are some inventions where you are just left scratching your head — and that is where the name for my blog, “What Were They Thinking,” originally came from. These days, I reserve my December blog to revisit some of the crazy ideas of years gone by. Perhaps some of them just need another hundred years to become reality. Some truly were great ideas, but the technology wasn’t ready for them.

Think of the humble earbuds. Before them, headphones were the way we got sound to our ears. But that was hardly the start of the story. Earbuds require two technologies — headphones and wireless connectivity.


The first piece of technology required is the headphone. This can be traced back to 1891 and an invention by French engineer Ernest Mercadier as shown in patent number 454,138. It described a telephone receiver pressed to the ear by a device ‘which shall be light enough to be carried while in use on the operator’s head’. His earliest version held a phone receiver to the head, but by the time it got to the patent office, it had evolved to be “in-ear.”

The first headphone that resembled the modern headphone was created by Nathaniel Baldwin for the military in 1910. He made about a dozen of these at a time, assembled from his home.

Everything since then has simply been an improvement on the concept. The technology got serious boosts from the introduction of stereophonic sound in 1957, and then with the introduction of the Sony Walkman in 1979.

Wireless connectivity

But nobody wants to be tethered by a wire, so earbuds need at least to receive a signal — and in some cases transmit one, as well. The earliest example I can find is from 1930.

But every good idea sees multiple incarnations. From England, the idea is quickly picked up by the local police, and by 1931 this was state of the art.

By 1949, the radio hat had been transformed into a piece of ‘stylish’ headwear. I wonder if this one was inspired by Mickey Mouse?

Of course, there are many modern people who still think this is a pretty neat idea. We can see here my friend and colleague Clive (Max) Maxfield donning his very own, original, Man from Mars Radio Hat. But don’t think that the technology didn’t advance. Even as recently as the ’90s, many companies were making baseball caps with radios built into them. Some added solar panels.

Courtesy of Max Maxfield

Today, both technologies have been combined and integrated and almost fit invisibly into the ear, but it took a little over 100 years for the original invention to reach the point where something like 500 million of them are sold every year.

Where does it go from here? What can we expect in another hundred years? A research group at the Grainger College of Engineering in Illinois says we will see earable computing. According to the researchers, these devices “will continuously sense human behavior, run acoustic augmented reality, have Alexa and Siri whisper just-in-time information, track user motion and health, and offer seamless security, among many other capabilities.”



Actually, headphones predate Mercadier’s patent. You’ll find them described on pages 3 & 4 of the July 6, 1888 issue of The Electrical Engineer.

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