Throat mics were first developed during WWII by the German military for Luftwaffe pilots and Panzer divisions. They were subsequently widely adopted by the Allies. The most famous American throat mic was the T-30, designed by Shure and widely adopted by the USAF. Throat mics were indispensable for pilots and tank drivers, who had to contend with engine noise in addition to the chaos of battle. By all accounts, these early throat mics, which can still be found on auction sites for antique military gear, were efficient but uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the throat mic was popular enough in aeronautics that in 1939 famed aviator Wiley Post incorporated earphones and a throat mic into the design of the world’s first pressure suit to explore the limits of high-altitude, long-distance flight. In 1940 parachutist Arthur H. Starnes made a record free-fall of 29,300 feet to demonstrate that properly equipped aviators could in fact survive free-falls from high altitudes. Starnes wore a throat mic and heart rate-monitoring electrodes so that he could be carefully monitored by doctors on the ground.
It was around that time that the throat mic found its first civilian application when swing musician and electrical instrument pioneer Alvino Rey used a modified throat mic to modulate the sound of his electric guitar. The throat mic was worn by his wife, who stood behind the curtains and sang along with the guitar lines, creating a unique sound that rock and roll musicians would later modify into the “Talk Box” used by Peter Frampton, Pink Floyd, and Stevie Wonder, among others.
Throat mics were also used in a number of scientific studies. Throat mics have also been used to study speech, snoring, subvocalization during speed reading, and laryngeal dysfunction. In 1970 throat mics were used in an experimental treatment for stuttering. In 2007, a researcher in medical engineering examined the use of throat mics to control prosthetic limbs using vocal commands. The next year, American researchers conducting a study to record and quantify ingestive behavior used a customized throat mic to record the sound of the human swallowing mechanism.
In addition to their use in such scientific research, throat mics continued to be used almost exclusively by military and law enforcement officers until 1996. That year, the creation of the Family Radio Service created a new market for throat mics in airsoft, paintball, and motorsports. Up until that point, the extremely limited usable range of citizens band radios and low-powered FM headsets made radio communication a hassle unless one purchased an expensive system that required licensing to operate. But with the FCC’s decision to open up license-free FRS bands, Motorola and other manufacturers were able to offer low cost, higher quality radios to the general public. With the proliferation of FRS radios, a new market for commercial radio headsets developed, since airsoft and scenario paintball players suddenly required a headset to avoid giving away their positions when teammates attempted to radio them. Throat mics quickly became popular for the same reasons they were so indispensable in WWII: direct, non-obstructive, handsfree communication free from background noise.
Outside of their classic military and tactical applications, throat mics are commonly worn by bouncers and events security personnel to communicate in crowded, noisy situations. Another popular new application for throat mics is in motorsports. Motorcycle riders find that throat mics are extremely effective at communicating at high speeds without interference from wind noise. Most recently, the helmet-friendly design of the throat mic has been adapted for snowmobiling, snowboarding, skiing, and extreme sports such as skydiving.
With the introduction of throat mics compatible with mobile phones, the throat mic has increased its popularity as a handsfree headset for convertible drivers and cyclists. Several throat mic models now exist for PC and console gaming as well; they are especially popular for multiplayer first-person shooters since they do not transmit sound from speakers to other players. Throat microphones have also found their way back into the music business; beatboxers first began using throat mics in 1997 to amplify and improve the throat’s percussive sounds during live performances and on recordings. It has since become a unique enhancement to some a a cappella performances as well.