by | Dec 24, 2009 08:00 PM ET
Marshall Brain

Behold, headphones. But where did they come from? Meet Nathaniel Baldwin, born in Utah in 1878. Even as a kid, Nathaniel Baldwin had the inventor bug. Before he reached adulthood, Nathaniel had already built his own bicycle and steam engine. After he worked his way through Brigham Young Academy, Nathaniel went on to study electrical engineering at Stanford. In the course of his life, Nathaniel held many different jobs, trying his hand at everything from teaching at Brigham Young to running hydro-electric plants. However, Nathaniel's most widespread success came in 1910 when he invented headphones. Each ear of the headphone contained the basic component of a speaker; a magnet, a voice coil, and a diaphragm. But headphones have two major advantages over conventional speakers. First, they decrease the distance between the speaker and the receiver; in this case, the ear. Second, they can potentially cancel out other interfering noises. This invention seems like a no-brainer. It's success didn't come overnight. In fact, no private company wanted to produce the headphones, and Baldwin couldn't get the invention off the drawing board until World War I when the U.S. Navy ordered 100 headsets. From there, the popularity of headphones increased. Now days, it's hard to imagine a world without them.

So, how genius is this inventor? On the American Dream scale, he gets a two. Although Nathaniel managed to launch his own company, he was betrayed by his partners and ultimately died impoverished. On the benefit to humanity scale, he gets a three. Headphones enable a degree of privacy. Not only can you keep your own music or podcast to yourself, but you also don't have to listen to everyone else's. On the ripple effect scale, he gets a four. With thousands of designs and hundreds of different uses, it's difficult to estimate how many headphones exist. Headphones are common in office environments, and almost any public place. Whether you're in a crowded subway or a space station, you can be sure there's a pair nearby.


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