Wednesday, June 11, 2008

First TTY for deaf phone communication on display

One of two modems used to make
the first TTY call in May 1964.

An announcement from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) National Technical Institute for the Deaf:

A piece of communications history that allowed people who are deaf to make their
own phone calls for the first time is on permanent display at RIT's Wallace
Memorial Library.

One of the two modems used for the first call on a TTY - or teletypewriter - more than 40 years ago is featured on the first floor of the library as part of its Deaf Archives collection.

The modem was donated by Harry G. Lang, professor in the Master of Science in Secondary Education teacher preparation program at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and author of A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell, published in 2000.

"This was one of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of telecommunications for deaf people," Lang said. "It marked the beginning of a new era in self advocacy. Deaf people developed and marketed their own device. The modem on display represents the beginning of a major revolution."

In May 1964, Robert H. Weitbrecht, in Redwood City, Calif., and Dr. James Marsters, in Pasadena, Calif., made history with the first long distance TTY phone call on a traditional telephone line. Their communication was garbled at first. But after some adjustments were made, their typed words were clear and concise: "Are you printing me now?" Bob asked Jim. "Let's quit for now and gloat over the success."

That brief call was a significant achievement and meant more independence for deaf people, who had waited 90 years for access to the common household telephone. Eventually, relay centers opened to connect TTY users with non-TTY users, allowing deaf parents to call schools when their children were sick, deaf and hearing friends and family members to chat at ease and deaf college students to have pizzas delivered without depending on hearing friends.

Weitbrecht, a physicist, is credited with inventing the TTY modem with help from Marsters, an orthodontist, and Andrew Saks, a deaf engineer. For several decades, the three men collaborated to develop improved modems that would work effectively with teletypewriters. The first improved designs included an acoustic coupler that converted audio tones received from the telephone handset resting in a cradle to typed messages on the teleprinter.

The first TTYs commonly used weighed more than 200 pounds, yet they were welcome additions in homes of thousands of deaf persons in the 1960s and 1970s. Later, more compact devices were developed with the advent of microelectronic circuitry."Before I acquired my first TTY, I was completely dependent on hearing people to make phone calls," said Lang, who is deaf.

"Before the TTY, I would have to drive to friends' homes and talk to them in person (if they were home). When I wanted to ask a girl out for a date, I would have to ask friends to help. It was a frustrating time."

Marsters recently donated funds for the glass showcase to house the modem in the RIT Library.

"I am delighted that the Wallace Memorial Library has established the Deaf Archives and is willing to display this historical artifact," Lang said. "New generations of deaf students need to appreciate the importance of self advocacy as it relates to technology, and there is no better place for this display than RIT/NTID."