The History of Earbuds – Listening Devices from 1850s to Now

Who invented earbuds? Ask people on the street, and they may not remember anything before the iconic white iPod headphones that sparked a global phenomenon. Today, earbuds come in all sizes, colors, and price points – from cheap throwaways to high tech active noise cancelling earbuds. As with many things in life, the truth is stranger than fiction. In fact, earbuds as we know them have been around for a long, long time…

Let’s jump back to the early 1800’s, when the phonograph was the trendiest trend in sound innovation. That’s right, for a mere $3,000 in modern terms you could own a large machine (like the one pictured above) that played sounds from a wax tube. Now, you may be asking, “What are those silly cords connecting all the people to that giant-ass machine?” And you would be right to ask.

We scoured Google’s patent archives and found this eerily familiar design dating back to 1910.

The patent for phonograph hearing tubes includes pretty much everything we know today. Take a gander at the breakdown, or read the full patent for yourself.

  • Rigid ear tubes connected to flexible tubing by means of a rigid Y connection
  • Ear tips of soft rubber or other suitable material which may be adjusted in the ears of the operator, and which may be renewed when necessary

That’s right. The first patented earbuds haven’t evolved in design since they were originally concepted. Color, design, and technology may have adapted with the times, but the fundamental principles that make earbuds, well… earbuds is exactly the same.

And before you critique this analysis based on the existence of wireless Bluetooth earbuds, you may be interested to know that wireless transmission of sound dates from around the same time period, and the invention of Bluetooth (patented in 1997) and later applied to the first Bluetooth earbuds is a direct result of advances from a century ago. Fascinating.