Have you ever experienced the complete confusion of standing next to a stranger and thinking they were talking to you only to find out they were actually speaking on the phone? This uncomfortable experience was brought to you by Nathaniel Baldwin, inventor of the hands-free headset and the headphones. Of course, these inventions have been very useful to many people over the last one hundred years: Navy personnel used the original headset as a way to communicate and listen to messages during World War I; telephone operators use them to talk to a client while directing their call; businesses use them in a similar way, listening to their client while having their hands free to pull up necessary information.
Nathaniel Baldwin was born in 1878 in a small Utah town called Fillmore. He went to secondary school at a private Mormon high school in Provo where he became a professor after studying at Stanford. In 1905 he was let go because of his theological differences with the doctrine the school adhered to. Soon after this he invented a system that allowed sound to be amplified which resulted in his first headset, and in designs for radio speakers. The path to fortune started when the U.S. Navy ordered 100 sets of his headphones during WWI. His headphones remained popular until his company went bankrupt in 1924. He also continued to design radio speakers. His most famous speaker was the “deluxe Master-Baldwin Throatype Clarophone” which was supposedly shaped like Enrico Caruso‘s throat.
Today, headphones and headsets are seen as often as cell phones and mp3 players. They provide us with the ability to make a phone call without holding our phone, and the ability to block out annoying noises. You can use them with almost any form of technology at almost any time. You can use them to quietly watch a movie on your laptop in a crowded area. You can also use them to listen to videos on your smart phone brought up by QR codes or other advertisements. In the President Electric exhibit at the Woodrow Wilson House we have QR codes for your smartphone that bring up pictures, videos, and recordings that allow you to better understand the technology we have on display.