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How the deaf developed a phone of their own

Before instant messaging via computer, or texting on mobile phones, people with hearing impairments relied on a device called the teletypewriter, or TTY, connected to a phone.

Photo credit: TDI
Robert H. Weitbrecht, James C. Marsters and Andrew Saks broke the telephone barrier for the deaf in 1964 when they converted an old, bulky, clacking Teletype machine into a device that could relay a typewritten conversation through a telephone line. It was the first example of what became commonly known as a TTY.

In the 1960s and 1970s, some pioneering deaf people in the United States developed relay services to enable deaf and hearing people to communicate with each other. “A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell” chronicles an important leap forward in the progress of deaf communication from the 1960s to the 1990s. Written by Harry G. Lang, Professor at the Department of Research in the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and published in 2000, the book highlights the role of three enterprising men in the quest for telephone access for the deaf community.

In 1964, Robert H. Weitbrecht (1920–1983), James C. Marsters (1924–2009), and Andrew Saks (1917–1989) started the process that would lead to deaf people around the world having an affordable phone system that they could use. All three were deaf. They also were independent and believed that deaf people could and should help themselves instead of relying on hearing people.

Andrew Saks was deafened by a mastoid infection in his infancy. Grandson of the founder of Saks Fifth Avenue, a department store in New York City, Saks studied electrical engineering at the University of California at Los Angeles. He tinkered with visual communication devices that would assist deaf people, working on relay coils and flashing light signallers to let him and his friends know that the telephone was ringing or that someone was at the door. He even set up a private relay service for himself in California. Once, while staying at a hotel in New York, he and his wife were able to use that service to order breakfast in their room. He also worked on an early version of a signaller that would allow deaf parents to know a baby was crying.

Robert Weitbrecht, who was born deaf and grew up to become a successful physicist with the Stanford Research Institute and a licensed amateur radio operator, had been experimenting with a teletypewriter (TTY) connected to his short-wave radio. He became particularly interested in using Morse code to communicate with other radio hams around the world. He had obtained his used “receive only” teletypewriter from a Los Angeles newspaper plant in 1950. He was able to modify it so that it could also send messages by radio. Hiking up Lassen Peak, he met a man with a deaf son and struck up a friendship. The man invited him to a dinner party, and one of the guests put him in touch with James Marsters, a prominent orthodontist and a licensed pilot, who had been rendered deaf by scarlet fever in infancy.

Marsters communicated with his hearing patients by reading their lips. “When this was not possible, his dental assistant repeated their words. Like other deaf people, Marsters found ways around most communication barriers, but he had never found an adequate solution to the problem of telephone access, despite more than two decades of searching for a way to use the common household telephone. When he learned of Weitbrecht’s electronics background, he felt that destiny had brought them together,” says Harry Lang in A Phone of Our Own, Chapter One: “A Chance Encounter”.

Marsters had been experimenting with sound amplification in order to solve the problem of how to enable a deaf person to use the telephone. Marsters flew himself to San Francisco to visit Weitbrecht at home. When he saw Weitbrecht’s TTY connected to a private telephone line, he immediately realized that it offered the solution to the problem of how to give deaf people independent access to telecommunications.

A TTY is a special device that lets people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech-impaired use the telephone to communicate, by allowing them to type messages back and forth to one another. A TTY is required at both ends of the conversation in order to communicate.   

When Marsters returned home, he bought a used Western Union TTY and continued to encourage Weitbrecht to carry on his experiments.

Marsters introduced Weitbrecht to Saks, who brought his business experience to the group, and the three men soon set to work. They started by collecting and reconditioning Teletype machines discarded by news services and companies such as Western Union.

Weitbrecht developed the telephone acoustic coupler (now known as a modem) and came up with the idea of using it to connect two Teletype machines. The coupler changed electrical signals from one machine into tones, which were then changed back into electrical signals at the other machine so the message could be printed.

“Are you printing now?” Weitbrecht asked Dr Marsters during their first successful transmission between their California homes in Redwood City and Pasadena over a traditional telephone line. “Let’s quit for now and gloat over the success.”

The three men later formed their own research and development company: Applied Communications (APCOM), Inc. APCOM’s main aim was to develop practical telecommunication equipment for use by deaf people. The three partners invested their own money in the company and marketed the “Phonetype” modem, as Weitbrecht’s acoustic telephone coupler was known. Marsters embarked on a nationwide tour as the company’s spokesperson, praising the TTY’s effectiveness and stressing the need for everyday safety. He urged deaf people, hospitals and fire departments to install the machines for emergency calls.

Paul Taylor, a deaf engineer and associate professor at the Applied Computer Technology Department in the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, formed the first local advocacy group in St Louis, Missouri in 1968, to collect, overhaul and distribute teleprinters to deaf families. He is also known for his advocacy for a nationwide telecommunications relay service.The use of refurbished teleprinters sparked the development of text telephones and eventually a text relay service (see article).


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