Hearing Aid Pioneer Cy Libby Dies at 98

Cy Libby. Photo courtesy of cylibby.com

E. Robert “Cy” Libby, a doctor, inventor and writer who rose from humble beginnings in Strawberry Mansion to become a world-renowned figure in the field of hearing aid technology, died in his sleep on Feb. 19. He was 98.

Libby was born Esiah Libschitz to Clara and Alter Libschitz in 1920. Alter Libschitz was a socialist bookbinder in Ukraine who fled to Argentina during the Russian Revolution and became a gaucho. After “he got tired of riding horses,” as Libby told Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Stu Bykofsky in October, his father made his way to Philadelphia.

The man who Bykofsky featured under the headline “The Jewish Gaucho’s Son Who Improved the Lives of the Deaf” was best known for the invention of his “Libby Horn,” an early hearing aid that consisted of a small J-shaped device. But he actually began his career as an optometrist in 1943. He paid his way through school working jobs at a celery factory and the St. Charles Hotel in Atlantic City, along with a side gig selling peanuts. Libby himself was hard of hearing, the result of a surgery in his youth.

He opened a hearing aid technology store called Associated Hearing at 6796 Market St. in Upper Darby, where he’d remain in business for 65 years. For the first six months, Libby sat around twiddling his thumbs — no one was coming in. A lawyer gave him a little bit of advice: American customers weren’t going to come into a store that said “Esiah Libschitz” on the sign. Find a new name, the lawyer told him.

And so E. Robert Libby was born. The “E” stood for Esiah, eventually shortened to the name he would go by for his whole life: Cy.

In addition to the Libby Horn, Libby invented a small metronome that went behind the ear that regulated the speech patterns of stutterers as well as various methods to treat tinnitus. His Libby Horn, patented in 1982, improved hearing tremendously for those who wore it. On his blog, cylibby.com, there is a long technical explanation for how Libby was able to do so.

For many years, Libby worked with his son, Danny Libby, who became an audiologist. They ran the store together, a time that the younger Libby looks back on fondly. They sold the store 12 years ago, and Danny Libby remains in the hearing aid business, working for Zounds Hearing.

“He lived an amazing life,” Danny Libby said. “He touched many, many lives.”

Libby traveled all over the world lecturing on his craft, describing his methods and ideas to audiologists, otolaryngologists and hearing aid specialists. He wrote for medical journals, and edited Hearing Instruments, a now-defunct publication. In the ’90s, he wrote 17 volumes of “Libby’s Random Pieces” — notes and musings collected over the years.

Cy Libby is survived by two children, Danny and Claire; a daughter-in-law, Lori; and two grandchildren, Jacob and Max. Libby’s wife of 64 years, Mira Braverman, died in 2011.

jbernstein@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740


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