An ear trumpet, or ear horn, is a type of amplifying cone which was historically used as a hearing aid. Most hearing-impaired individuals prefer to use more accurate and discreet devices as hearing aids, and ear trumpets generally only pop up in old-fashioned novels and cartoons nowadays. At one time, however, they were very useful tools, and some museums have some excellent and interesting examples of antique ear trumpets, which varied widely in size, shape, and design.
The basic design of an ear trumpet includes a cone which amplifies ambient sounds, and a tube which is inserted into the ear. When the user directs the ear trumpet at a source of sound such as a concert or someone who is talking, the cone picks up the noise, amplifies it, and directs it into the tube. Ear trumpets were historically often used by the elderly, who tend to lose their sense of hearing over time. The amplification abilities of ear trumpets were not always ideal, which is why some historical novels poke fun at ear trumpet users who have difficulty following conversations.
The first mention of an ear trumpet appeared in the mid-1600s, when the devices were originally used by sailors and other people who wanted to amplify long-distance communications. Ear trumpets were probably developed as a logical extension of the practice of cupping your hands around your ears to hear more easily. Over time, the ear trumpet was also picked up by people who were hard of hearing.
In the 20th century, ear trumpets were supplanted by electronic hearing aids, which use different techniques to amplify and transmit sound to the user. An electronic hearing aid can be extremely small and the amplification quality is much better than that of an ear trumpet, allowing the user to hear more clearly. Modern hearing aids have gotten quite sophisticated, using technology which can do things like allow the deaf to hear, in the case of a Cochlear implant.
The concept of an ear horn might seem quaint, but there might be a point in your life when you wish you had an ear trumpet handy to follow a distant conversation or event. If you want to quickly improvise an ear trumpet, roll a sheet of paper into a cone and stick the narrow end in your ear; be careful not to enter the ear canal, as you do not want to penetrate your ear drum. While you might look slightly silly, you will find that your sense of hearing is greatly improved with your makeshift ear trumpet.