March 6, 2013 12:30 pm

The surprisingly colourful history of wireless headsets

Nokia Luna

Holding the Nokia Luna Bluetooth headset it’s easy to imagine that wireless headsets are a very modern phenomenon.  Yet you couldn’t be further from the truth. Turns out the origins of wireless headsets begin more than a century ago. So, let’s take a closer look at the long and surprisingly colourful history of this now ubiquitous technology.

Headsets take off

The brainchild of Nathaniel Baldwin, a Stanford University student credited with inventing a whole host of electrical devices, the headset was originally a flop. In 1910 nobody was interested in mass-producing this strange communications tool. It wasn’t until the outbreak of World War 1, when the US Army bought a hundred devices for their pilots that headsets quite literally took off.

Fairey_Swordfish_43-640x484

Until the early 50’s, these headsets were simply a pair of headphones. Then in 1951, Herbert “Mac” McClelland, fabricated a wireless microphone to be worn by baseball umpires at major league games. These two technologies combined would lead to the headsets we have today.

A successful pilot scheme

At the start of the 1960s, headsets used by airline pilots were so bulky and cumbersome, that many favored using handheld microphones to communicate. The discomfort of the over-sized headsets and inconvenience of handheld microphones, especially in complex jet planes, prompted United Airlines to begin a search for lightweight headsets.

unitedairlines

Courtney Graham, a United Airline pilot himself, along with his friend and fellow pilot, Keith Larkin, decided to create a headset that was both durable and light. The two pilots ended up attaching two transducers, as used in hearing aids, to a headband. The design was submitted to United Airlines who approved it.

The modern headset was born.

Fly me to moon

In 1961, NASA astronaut Wally Schirra got in touch with the pilots to see if they could design a fully portable, two-way communication system for space travel. It took the team and NASA technicians just eleven days to design and manufacture a microphone headset unit that could be used by astronauts to communicate with one another and with earth. Each microphone circuit had two in-built transducers and each receiver had five transducers to ensure reliability and security.

Obit Schirra

Wally Schirra himself was the first astronaut to use the new technology on the Sigma 7 mission. Following its success, these headsets were used for the rest of the Mercury missions and the Apollo missions. In fact, Neil Armstrong’s famous phrase upon landing on the moon for the first time was relayed via a wireless headset.

The rest, as they say, is hands-free history.