Beeswax and cotton: The history of earplugs, part I
If there is a list of professions where ear protection is needed to perform the job safely, any job in the military would definitely rank high on that list.
From explosions on the battlefield to discharged firearms during training exercises, military members are constantly surrounded by loud, potentially damaging sounds. It should come as no surprise then that earplugs and other hearing safety devices were developed as an attempt to protect soldiers from becoming deaf. The following is a brief history of how ear protection has evolved and the impact it has had on soldiers.
The earliest record of earplugs comes from 850 BC in the epic poem the Odyssey. Odysseus, the hero of the story, is sailing with his crew when they must pass the sirens, creatures that are famous for their sweet voices that tempt sailors to seek them. According to myth, sailors would become entranced by the sirens’ voices to the point that they would crash ships, meeting a watery end. Odysseus is clever however, using beeswax as earplugs to keep his men from hearing the sirens so they could sail safely pass them. Odysseus couldn’t resist hearing the sirens and had his men tie him to the mast, so he could hear the sirens without acting foolishly.
Incredibly, soldiers in war time did not follow Odysseus’ lead until centuries later. Men who fought in the American Revolution experienced hearing loss years after fighting off the British. Industrial Safety and Hygiene News reports hearing protection was an afterthought in the American Civil War too, where nearly a third of Union Army soldiers experienced some sort of hearing loss.
“Although the first patent for an earplug was obtained in 1884, resistance to the use of hearing protection during warfare remained, due to a generally accepted belief that hearing loss could be prevented by developing a tolerance to noise – a notion that held sway into the early 20th century,” says Industrial Safety and Hygiene News.
Read part II to learn how earplugs became integral into the military by World War I.