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The Origin of Headphones

Mariano Lopez, Staff Writer

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Chances are, you probably own a pair of earbuds or headphones and most likely used them today to listen to your favorite artists. But did you know that a polygamist made them for the U.S. Navy back in 1910? A crazy idea to believe, but keep reading to find out more. Technically speaking, there was more than just one person that created the headphones but one in particular was the one that popularized it in the United States. For now, though, we’ll be discussing how the origins of the headphones can be traced back to opera houses, military bases, and a kitchen table in Utah.

In the 1890’s a British company called Electrophone created a system which allowed their users to listen to live feeds of their favorite performances of theaters and opera houses across London. People could only listen to them through a massive set of headsets that connected below the chin and were to be held using a long rod. This was revolutionary at the time and there are even photos of people wearing them on the internet thanks to technology.

But that was in Britain, and you’re most likely interested in how they came to America. It all started with Nathaniel Baldwin who was born December 1st, 1878 in Millard County Utah, Nathaniel Baldwins family were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). He grew up to be an air compressor operator, and he liked to experiment with sound amplification using compressed air. He used this to invent a very sensitive telephonic receiver in 1910 and later sold it to the United States Navy. But why them out of all people and places? In the years leading up to World War One many people pitched ideas to the government to receive funding or sometimes sold their invention to them just to make a quick buck.

He wrote to them in 1910 and offered his headphones for military testing, while his offer wasn’t taken very seriously in the beginning they were eventually tested. They were found to be a drastic improvement over the ones that the current Naval radio operators were using. They quickly asked Nathaniel for more to test, which he did.

The Navy offered some suggestions to him on how he could improve his invention, which he took to heart and incorporated them into his headphones. They were a bit clunky but were comfortable enough for everyday use. They wanted more and quickly placed more orders for his headsets, but then found out that Baldwin was still building them in his kitchen table and could only produce 10 at a time. They accepted his inability to mass produce them as they were better than anything they had ever tested. Soon, they were improved upon by adding a adjustable wire, which was an immediate success, and the Navy advised Baldwin to patent his marvelous invention. He surprisingly refused, claiming that it was a “trivial invention”.

Eventually, the Navy urged Baldwin to start mass producing them and wanted to move him to an east coast facility. The only problem was that he was a polygamist, so he couldn’t leave Utah. The Wireless Specialty Apparatus Co., another manufacturer in the headphone business found out, and worked with Baldwin to build a factory in Utah. However, it did come with one condition; they could never raise the prices to the U.S. Navy. Not much is known about Baldwin’s life after this, as he died in January of 1961.

The next big innovation started with John Koss after World War II. He started Koss Corporation after hearing how military grade headphones sounded and was determined to bring this to the public. So from scratch, using a vacuum cleaner, he created his own headphones and presented them at a hi-fi trade show in Milwaukee 1958. His design was almost immediately copied by others, thus standardizing the headphone business for years to come.

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The student news site of Riverton High School in Riverton, Utah
The Origin of Headphones