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Who invented headsets and why?
Those of us who use and work with telephone headsets every day take them for granted; we think nothing of holding a conversation and being fully engaged with someone who may live thousands of miles away, while having our hands free at the same time. Those of us who use them for work just see the humble headset as another piece of equipment we use in order to do our jobs, not thinking about who invented them, when and for what purpose. Of course, knowing this information will not change the way we use our headsets, but sometimes it is nice to know the story behind such a ubiquitous piece of kit.
As with inventions like duct tape and superglue, headsets were first invented for military use. A Stanford University graduate, in electrical engineering, named Nathaniel Baldwin had been experimenting with compressed air and sound amplification and used his findings to develop ever more sensitive receivers, which led to the development of the first set of headphones. He dreamt up the idea for a hands free listening device in 1910 and sold 100 units to the US Navy. They were so popular with early pilots, that their widespread adoption as an item of military communication kit was almost guaranteed; leaving hands free to operate a plane or other military hardware, troops could remain in contact with others and receive vital orders and information, even when concentrating on the task at hand. At this early stage, the headphones were only used to receive sound and could not be used to communicate both ways.
As telephonic technology advanced and became more compact, mouthpieces were added to the headphones to create the first headset which enabled two-way communication in one device. These were used by systems board operators in telephone exchanges, who had been contending with weighty earpieces and microphones up to that point, equipment which had caused many neck and upper back injuries. By the 1960s, the headsets had become very lightweight as pilots and switchboard operators alike had expressed a preference for lighter equipment for the head, in order to reduce neck strain and fatigue.
As telephone and military communication headsets became more commonplace and less of a specialist item they started to appear in call centres and offices, and at the reception desks of busy hotels and venues. The over-head design was supplemented with the style that wraps around the back of the head, and eventually the single ear model, which fits around one ear and needs no other fixing, appeared. This coincided with the introduction of mobile phones to the mass market, which gave rise to the need for hands free mobile communication for use in cars, while commuting and also while working. Bluetooth connectivity helped the headset to not only be a hands-free tool, but a wireless one as well. In size terms, the telephone headset is about as small as it can be, a far cry indeed from the clunky, un-cushioned headphones Baldwin made in his Utah kitchen almost 110 years ago.
The latest developments of noise isolating and noise cancelling technologies, in the constantly evolving history of telephone headsets are the most recent advances. In a satisfying link to the fans of Baldwin's early device, this most recent development was first used by pilots to cancel out engine and cockpit noise and has since become available to the commercial market as well. The next big thing in headset design is an unknown for now, but given that the history of the devices is quite varied and rich, it is anyone's guess what will influence the next advancement.