From the Telegraph to the TTY

Here’s a report on Dr. Harry Lang’s TDI workshop entitled “From the Telegraph to the TTY – The Deaf Experience in the History of Communication” – a really fascinating history of the TTY.

Harry Lang is a professor in the Department of Research at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID). He has written several books, including his most recent work, “A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell”.

There once was a deaf physicist with an idea for distance communications that would be accessible to deaf people, but he was unable to interest the government in his idea. Any idea who this might be? Robert Weitbrecht (inventor of the TTY) is one person who fits the bill, but the person I’m thinking of is Guillaume Amontons, the father of the optical telegraph. He lived in France about 300 years ago, and came up with the idea of using windmills (which were the tallest structures around) to relay messages across long distances. An operator would display a text message from the sending windmill; an operator at the receiving windmill would read the message using a telescope, then pass it on to the next windmill. Communications over long distances could occur quite rapidly for that era.

Several deaf people were involved in the early development of the telegraph. They didn’t need to hear, because they could feel the vibrations of the sounder (device which produces the telegraph sound).

In 1893 Asa Gray invented a communications system called the “electrowriter”. It involved the transmission of text over wires (much like a TTY). However, the technology was overwhelmed by Bell’s voice phone, so deaf-accessible telecommunications was postponed for 70 years.

Another attempt at accessible communications was made in 1912, when a deaf inventor created a visual telephone, which had a light for each letter. The idea was that text would be transmitted a letter at a time, and the corresponding light would flash on the receiving end.

It is well known that Thomas Edison was deaf. Modern estimates are that he had no hearing in one ear and a 70 dB loss in the other. He didn’t sign or read lips. He received spoken information from an interpreter, who tapped out Morse code on his leg.

Other deaf scientists who contributed to the development of telecommunications technology include John Ambrose Fleming, who invented the electric valve (vacuum tube) and Oliver Heaviside, who developed telephone transmission theory. Heaviside is perhaps best known for proposing the existence of an atmospheric layer that reflects radio waves, and therefore allows long distance radio communications. He is honored by having this layer named after him.

In 1941, a deaf woman with a German last name used Morse code to communicate over the telephone. Although unable to understand speech over the phone, she was able to distinguish a dash from a dot. You may recall that the world was embroiled in World War II at the time. The deaf young woman and her parents had some serious explaining to do when the Secret Service showed up to find out what all the code was about.

Real telecommunications access for people with hearing loss became possible following the invention of the TTY modem by Robert H. Weitbrecht in 1963. Hearing about Weitbrecht’s talents and wanting to help bring telecommunications access to deaf people, a deaf dentist named Jim Marsters flew to Redwood City, CA to meet Weitbrecht.Marsters asked if Weitbrecht’s radio teletype circuitry could be adapted for use over the telephone line, and Weitbrecht replied that it was possible.

Weitbrecht tried to get old ttys from Ma Bell, but was unsuccessful.Worried that their old machines might be used for competition, Ma Bell was careful to destroy them before discarding. So Weitbrecht scavenged parts from the junkyard. He completed his first machine and made the first TTY call in 1964. The first public demonstration of the TTY occurred at the Alexander Graham Bell Conference in Salt Lake City that year.

The early TTYs were large and expensive; TTY expansion was slow. There were 2 TTYs in 1964, 18 in 1966, and 174 in 1968. By 1971, the number of TTYs in the US reached 1500. The Braille TTY was invented in 1974. By the early 70s, news and weather reports were transmitted via TTY.

Because of ongoing lawsuits, AT&T did not support early TTY development. Discarded machines from Western Union and the Army were the primary sources for TTY components until the settlement of the lawsuits in 1968. Additional indirect AT&T support came from a group called Telephone Pioneers of America. Its members, who were retired AT&T employees, trained deaf people on how to build and repair TTYs.

The early TTYs were quite fragile and had a multitude of technical problems. Something as commonplace as a barking dog could cause the transmission of errant characters.

The first international TTY call was made from Canada to St. Louis in 1968. In 1973, Marsters demonstrated the TTY in Europe, where it was eventually adopted. The first transatlantic TTY call was made in 1975.

The miniaturization trend that began in the 1970s was responsible for the subsequent availability and affordability of TTYs. As the size and price came down, demand soared. By 1982, 180 thousand TTYs were in use.