110 years ago someone thought how we could better hear the masses. And so modern headphones were born

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TO Nathaniel Baldwin His vein of inventor was able to him and that, sometimes, dragged his mind towards unsuspected routes. It happened to him at some undefined time between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during an assembly of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake. As he listened to the pastor, Baldwin realized that the acoustics were poor and he could hardly hear anything. That annoyance led to an obsession with how to amplify sound and that obsession, over time, in a device that has earned him the title of inventor of modern headphones.

Nathaniel Baldwin’s is the story of a great inventor in the purest style self made mana self-made man, just like his contemporaries Thomas A Edison, Nicholas Tesla, Frederick Collins or Monica Sanchez Moreno. As in some of those cases, his success was as dazzling as his subsequent fall. He went from making headphones at his kitchen table to running his own company; and from amassing money and fame, even working for the Navy, to end up in jail.

This is his story.

And, by the way, that of a gadget that we find everywhere today: “helmets”.

Designed for mass and manufactured for the army

Ernest Jules Pierre Mercadier Dpj 224828606582

Ernest Mercadier’s Bitelephone.

At the end of the 19th century, headphones already had a certain history behind them, although their appearance was so different from the current ones that, at times, they looked more like huge stethoscopes. By 1890 Londoners were using a receiver to listen to the Electrophone, an on-demand relay service. The sizable device was held on a handle and slid under the chin. Before that, they had been used in the Telefon Hírmondó and registered several patents: the Bitelephone of Ernest Mercatier and the receiver of ezra gilliland.

The US Army also had its devices, but its results were frankly improvable. One of the people who saw it at the right time, right on the cusp of World War I, was Baldwin, an inventor from a Mormon family who had studied physics and electrical engineering at the Stanford University and at that time —after having worked as a teacher, electrician and operator— he worked in the hydropower plant of Mill Creek Canyon, Utah.

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As a child, Baldwin was fascinated by devising devices and towards the end of the 19th century he was toying with the idea of ​​designing an improved version of the steam engine. After his experience with the acoustics of the Salt Lake temple, however, all his attention was focused on another problem, just as complex: the amplification of sound and how to improve the receivers. During the experiments he experimented with a compressed air tube, noise-sensitive valves and improvements to existing apparatus.

By May 1910 he already had a convincing solution: two receivers with considerable sensitivity fixed to a headband and equipped with headphones with a mile of fine copper wiring and a mica diaphragm. Convinced of the potential of his invention, he dedicated himself to sending letters to firms engaged in the manufacture of radio supplies and wireless devices. It was of little use. That apparently homemade solution did not convince the industry or the Smithsonian Institutionso Baldwin decided to change his strategy and knocked on another door: that of the US Navy.


Electrophone user.

What I would remember later Admiral Arthur Jepy Hepburn, of the Navy Radio Division, one fine day came across “a letter from Salt Lake City written in violet ink on blue and pink legal pad” signed by a Mr. Baldwin. In the letter the inventor highlighted the advantages of his device -He pointed out that they had a resistance of about 2,000 ohms- and ended by encouraging them to test the prototype. The proposal was probably met with skepticism; but to the surprise of the Navy that device worked. And surprisingly well, too.

The officers ordered more devices and Baldwin threw himself into preparing them. The design of his headset was perfected, some adjustments proposed by the Navy technicians were applied and the result ended up being good enough for the army to decide to order more units. Problem: That peculiar inventor from Utah he worked in the kitchen of his house and in the free time that his real job left him, so his capacity was very limited.

Gradually the design was simplified until it was reduced to a pair of adjustable wire rods leather covered and attached to two receivers. Things also improved at the business level. To cope with the increase in demand brought about by the winds of war that were already blowing, in 1914 Baldwin resigned from his employment at the power station and built his own factory. Over time, it added a new building, bought land, partnered with other firms… By 1922 it was employing 150 people, running three shifts, and manufacturing 150 devices a day.

Baldwin’s company was going from strength to strength and the popularization of radio as a form of entertainment it led him to innovate in his products; but there is no empire that lasts a hundred years and that of the inventor of Utah was no exception. A strong advocate of polygamy, a position that marked his career and life for years, Baldwin dedicated himself to helping people with the same convictions in different ways: he hired them at his factory, financed housing and paid bills.

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In 1924 even included in the board of directors to some of their co-religionists, which led part of the displaced team to create their own company and compete with Baldwin’s. To further complicate the scenario, around the same time the inventor invested some 50,000 dollars in a mine without much fortune. His company soon declared bankruptcy and, although Baldwin was able to take over his reins again, he did not revive the golden age of the beginning of the century.

Another bad decision in the sale of shares out of state resulted in a mail fraud indictment in 1930 and a five-year prison sentence. Baldwin would end up spending only two in McNeil Island Prison, but it was enough time to put the finishing touches to his business. “If he had been a little better businessman and hadn’t promoted polygamy, he very well could have been the RCA of America.” commented his grandsonKay Baldwin, to KSL in 2017.

He died decades later, in early 1961, in Salt Lake City, impoverished and far from his golden yearsbut leaving his name forever linked to a history of sound that continued to advance thanks to innovations such as John Koss in the 1950s.

Images | Alireza Attari (Unsplash), Wikipedia and Midnight Believer (Flickr)

TO Nathaniel Baldwin His vein of inventor was able to him and that, sometimes, dragged his mind towards unsuspected routes.…

TO Nathaniel Baldwin His vein of inventor was able to him and that, sometimes, dragged his mind towards unsuspected routes.…

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