Today, wireless headsets can be seen anywhere and everywhere. People driving their cars now have to talk on wireless headsets; business workers in offices often use wireless headsets; even people walking down the street can be seen talking on miniature earpieces. In the 1960s, however, headsets were the originally designed, manufactured and worn by an elite few – pilots and astronauts.
At the start of the 1960s, headsets used by airline pilots were so bulky and cumbersome, that many favoured using handheld microphones to communicate. The discomfort of the over-sized headsets and inconvenience of handheld microphones, especially in complex jet planes, prompted United Airlines to begin a search for lightweight headsets. Any design and prototype would be looked at by the airline and Courtney Graham, a United Airline pilot himself, along with his friend and fellow pilot, Keith Larkin, decided to create a headset that was both durable and light.
The two pilots ended up attaching two transducers, as used in hearing aids, to a headband. The design was submitted and United Airlines who approved it. At this point, Graham and Larkin joined together permanently as business partners to create Pacific Plantronics, or as it is now known, Plantronics Inc.
Astronauts in Space
Following the success of the airline pilot headsets, NASA astronaut Wally Schirra got into contact with the Plantronics team in order to discuss the creation of a similar model for use a little further from home, in space. Initially, Schirra wanted to find a lightweight headset for astronauts in the Mercury Spacecraft and Plantronics brought together its Space Environmental Communications division to go about working on this endeavour. All in all, it only took this team and NASA technicians 11 days to design and manufacture a functional and convenient microphone headset unit that could be used by astronauts to communicate with one another and with earth. Each microphone circuit had two in-built transducers and each receiver had five transducers to ensure reliability and security.
It was in fact Wally Schirra himself who had the honour of using the new technology first on the Sigma 7 mission. Following its success and positive feedback, these headsets went on to be used for the rest of the Mercury missions, the Apollo missions and are still used today. Many an important message has been relayed via these headsets, which the Plantronics team named the MS-50 and several seminal moments have been created thanks to these headsets. Neil Armstrong’s famous phrase on landing on the moon for the first time, for example, was uttered through a Plantronics MS-50 headset.
Back on Earth
After the massive success of the MS-50 headsets, fame and recognition ensued and communications companies and major telephone corporations began consulting Plantronics to replace their now outdated systems with the MS-50 model. This was the beginning of a wave that gradually swept the communications industry and has recently begun to enter people’s day-to-day lives.