JF Ptak Science Books, Post 2688
Ernest Mercadier (1836-1911, electrical engineer and director at Ecole Polytechnique) may well have introduced the first "ear buds1" into the technical world.
His apparatus--small listening devices of 1.752 ounces that were padded and fit into the ear--was made for the operator of a telephone so that they could listen and speak and have free use of their hands for notes and such, as pictured on the front cover of this pamphlet. This would have been a shocking thing to see, I think, back there in 1891, only 15 years into the age of the telephone and about half of that for the time in which the still-a-luxury telephone could be accessed by relatively upper-middle-class folks. (In 1881 there were approximately 50,000 Bell telephone stations; in 1885, the year ATT was formed, there were about 150,000; in 1890, 200k and then 600k in 1900. It was in the first decade of the new century where telephone rental/ownership/accessibility really began to spread, with 2.2 million in 1905 and 5.8 million in 1910. Remember that the telephone was only one aspect of communication--all of the massive amount of infrastructure to connect thousands of telephones wasn't yet created.)
Mercadier was well acquainted with the new device (having written Etudes Sur La Theorie Du Telephone five years earlier in 1886, plus other works on the telegraph and associated beginning in 1881), though what made his instrument so softly revolutionary was that it was one of the first entries into the world of communications microminiaturization--a concept we normally associate with computer development in the middle/late 1950's. As a "headphone" this device is also extremely early though not the first3, though to my eye it is certainly the most elegant, at least that suited to its purpose. The earbud, even though it appears here in 1891, really takes another ten decades to come into its own.
Ernest Jules Pierre Mercadier, Bitelephone. Printed by Jamin in Laval, ca. 1891-3 (though no later than 1893). 21x13.5cm, 15pp, 6 text illustrations showing the device. The author announces that there are patents for his invention at home and abroad: "Brevets et patents en France et a l'Etranger". This is the original pamphlet in wrappers, though at some very early point the pamphlet was bound into a larger manila-folder-like paper cover measuring 25x17cm; the front wrapper of the pamphlet was removed and pasted on the front cover of the new binding. The rear cover is intact. SO, that said, this is a not-perfect copy of the pamphlet, though the much-reproduced and striking cover is present. PROVENANCE: Library of Congress Smithsonian Deposit, accessed in October 1893.
- "Who Made that Earbud?", NYT, May 16, 2014 https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/magazine/who-made-that-earbud.html
- From the Smithsonian Magazine on Mercadier's invnetion: “...improvements in telephone-receivers…which shall be light enough to be carried while in use on the head of the operator.” After extensive testing and optimization of telephone receivers, Mercadier was able to produce miniature receivers that weighed less than 1 3/4 ounces and were “adapted for insertion into the ear.” His design is an incredible feat of miniaturization and is remarkably similar to contemporary earbud headphones, down to the use of a rubber cover “to lessen the friction against the orifice of the ear… effectually close the ear to external sounds.” : https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-partial-history-of-headphones-4693742/#4c4flaaUUVCDrfVX.99 Also a nice notice in an article by The Guardian, "10 Most Influential Headphones".
- An interesting article in the SVG blog by Mark Schubin (https://www.sportsvideo.org/blogs/?blog=schubin-cafe&news=headphones-history-hysteria) points to the Mercadier device for being perhaps the third earliest headphone, following some others (issuing beginning in 1881) that were earlier but a lot more cumbersome. The Mercadier really were much smaller, more elegant, and a lot lighter than its 19th century companions. That said, the Mercadier device was more a candidate for the earliest earbuds more so than a straightforward headphone.
For a good timeline on the development of the telephone/telephone system, see: https://www.telephonetribute.com/timeline.html