This early stethoscope belonged to Laennec (Science Museum, London)
The stethoscope was invented in France in 1816 by René Laennec at the Necker-Enfants Malades Hospital in Paris. It consisted of a wooden tube and was monaural. His device was similar to the common ear trumpet, a historical form of hearing aid; indeed, his invention was almost indistinguishable in structure and function from the trumpet, which was commonly called a “microphone”.
The first flexible stethoscope of any sort may have been a binaural instrument with articulated joints not very clearly described in 1829.In 1840, Golding Bird described a stethoscope he had been using with a flexible tube. Bird was the first to publish a description of such a stethoscope but he noted in his paper the prior existence of an earlier design (which he thought was of little utility) which he described as the snake ear trumpet. Bird’s stethoscope had a single earpiece. In 1851, Irish physician Arthur Leared invented a binaural stethoscope, and in 1852 George Cammann perfected the design of the instrument for commercial production, which has become the standard ever since. Cammann also wrote a major treatise on diagnosis by auscultation, which the refined binaural stethoscope made possible. By 1873, there were descriptions of a differential stethoscope that could connect to slightly different locations to create a slight stereo effect, though this did not become a standard tool in clinical practice. Rappaport and Sprague designed a new stethoscope in the 1940s, which became the standard by which other stethoscopes are measured, consisting of two sides, one of which is used for the respiratory system, the other for the cardiovascular system. The Rappaport-Sprague was later made by Hewlett-Packard. HP’s medical products division was spun off as part of Agilent Technologies, Inc., where it became Agilent Healthcare. Agilent Healthcare was purchased by Philips which became Philips Medical Systems, before the walnut-boxed, $300, original Rappaport-Sprague stethoscope was finally abandoned ca. 2004, along with Philips’ brand (manufactured by Andromed, of Montreal, Canada) electronic stethoscope model. The Rappaport-Sprague model stethoscope was heavy and short (18–24 in (46–61 cm)) with an antiquated appearance recognizable by their two large independent latex rubber tubes connecting an exposed-leaf-spring-joined-pair of opposing “f”-shaped chrome-plated brass binaural ear tubes with a dual-head chest piece. Several other minor refinements were made to stethoscopes, until in the early 1960s Dr. David Littmann, a Harvard Medical School professor, created a new stethoscope that was lighter than previous models and had improved acoustics. The Littmann stethoscope is the model used by most medical students today.