Kate Losse

When Sony unveiled the Walkman in 1979, it transformed the way we see and experience the world as we move through it. The advent of portable music turned headphones from a stationary device for work or home to an ubiquitous accessory—the original wearable technology. A genuine crossover between engineering and fashion, headphones demonstrate the way in which technological advancement has come to influence style in our culture—just count the number of Beats headphones on any subway or airplane. Headphones have become a crucial mediator of IRL social space, too. Anyone with a smartphone and a set of earbuds possesses the tools to build and rebuild ambient private spaces, sonically and even emotionally removed from their physical location. From their earliest deployment as military technology to their constant presence in the modern street and workplace, headphones’ perpetual relevance stems from the ability they give the wearer to isolate and create their own reality. We are now equipped to score our own movies.


Like almost all personal technology, headphones were a form of work gear before they became associated with leisure and pop culture. American switchboard operators from the 1890s through both World Wars wore a minimalist, wire-frame headset that held a single black bud to one ear. The headset was attached to a horn-shaped microphone slung on the shoulder. Workers at these switchboards—usually women—operated switchboards like a form of analogue social media, connecting homes and offices to each other via telephone by plugging and unplugging switches. The easily inserted yet secure headphone jacks used to connect early headphones to switchboards became the model for headphone jacks to the present day.

In 1895, the Electrophone was created to pipe live music performances into home headsets using switchboard technology. “To sit in one’s armchair and listen to the favorite items of Entertainment in Progress at London’s theaters and Music Halls is certainly an agreeable method of spending an hour or two,” read a contemporary advertisement. The Electrophone headset was shaped like a cross between a stethoscope and a tennis racket, and it held headphones to the ear from two sides of a hand-held stick. The hand-held design could be pulled away from the ears easily, creating a headphone use case that was more social than private. Rather than using headphones to escape the social, as later headphones would be marketed, the headphone created a group listening experience.


Text: Kate Losse

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