Development of the TTY – Part II

Robert Traynor
January 18, 2016

Lang (2000) reports that in 1964, at the time of the introduction of touch-tone phones, there were more than 85 million telephones in the United States and tty11Canada but less than one percent were used regularly by deaf people.  If they didn’t ask their hearing neighbors for help, people with hearing loss depended upon their hearing children, some as young as three years old, to act as tty19intermediaries for business calls or medical consultations.

Last week we began a discussion of the development of the TTY, invented by Robert H. Weibrecht (1920-1983), and initially developed in the early 1960s. At the time, the TTY was a large, cumbersome, and somewhat frustrating device to use. But despite the size and frustrations, it worked and, for the first time, when available on bothtty2 ends of a conversation, it helped the hearing impaired to conduct two way conversations. One just had to be able to afford to purchase an old teletype systems and a coupler.

Last week at Hearing International we looked at the origins of the TTY, and this week the question is: “How did we get to the great devices that we have today?”

The road to the current devices began with Weitricht’s invention, but moving it beyond a piece of engineering appears to have started with a meeting between Weitbrecht and two others at an  AG. Bell meeting in 1964 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  These three well-educated, enterprising men, the inventor Robert H. Weitbrecht, James C. Marsters, a deaf orthodontist from Pasadena, and Andrew Saks, a deaf engineer and heir to Saks 5th Avenue, began discussions and a process that would ultimately offer deaf people around the world a usable and affordable phone system.  While we discussed Weitbrecht last week, Dr. Marsters was instrumental in encouraging Weitbrecht to market his coupler device. 

…….But Who Was Dr. James C. Marsters?

James Carlyle Marsters was born April 5, 1924, in Norwich, N.Y., and became deaf after contracting scarlet fever as an infant.  From infancy he was taught to lipread and speak.  After graduating in 1943 from the Wright Oral School for the Deaf in New York City, he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry in 1947 from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.

Unable to find a position in his profession, he went to work at a New York necktie factory owned by his father-in-law, who encouraged him to study dentistry. Virtually every dental school to which Marsters applied turned him down due to his deafness, but New York University granted him provisional enrollment and he graduated as a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) in 1952, becoming one of the first deaf dentists in the country.  Nelson (2009) reveals thattty15 in dental school, part of Marsters’s strategy was to pretend that he was hard of hearing rather than deaf hoping that his professors would be less concerned about him understanding lectures.

After a move to California, Dr. Marsters was admitted into a fellowship of Orthodontics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, which he completed in 1954. After graduating from the program he began a solo orthodontic practice in Pasadena in 1954 and continued practicing dentistry until his retirement in 1990.

tty18His real fame, however, was not dentistry, but the TTY.   Marsters knew the problem well as it had been a difficulty all of his life.  With his hearing patients, Marsters communicated by reading their lips. Sources that knew him indicate that when lipreading was not possible he had his dental assistant repeat their words and he would lipread her.

Like other deaf people, Marsters found ways around most communication barriers. But despite two decades of searching he had never found an adequate solution to the problem of telephone access.  His daughter, Dr. Jean Marsters, recalls that he depended on her to help with phone calls. She relates that, “If my dad got atty17 phone call from his insurance agent, or anybody, I had to listen, mouth the words, then he would lip-read and reply with his voice. Every single phone conversation was like that when I was a child.” (Nelson, 2009).  As a result, Marsters was very motivated to be part of the group initiating a telephone system for the deaf.

Dr. Marsters, one of the first deaf Dentists, Orthodontist, accomplished airplane pilot and, most importantly, the co-developer of the TTY died after a short illness on July 28, 2009.

We will look at the contributions of Andrew Saks in next week’s Hearing International.



Lang, H., (1999). The Harry G. Lang Collection on Early TTY History, 1947-1999.  Gallaudet University Deaf Collections and Archives, Manuscrips, MSS201.  Retrieved January 18, 2016.

Lang, H., (2000).  A phone of our own: The deaf insurrection against ma bell. Gallaudet University Press, Washington.  Retrieved January 18, 2016.

Nelson, V. (2009).  James C. Marsters dies at 85; Pasadena orthodontist helped establish phone use for the deaf.  Los Angeles Times.  Retrieved Januaty 18, 2016.


Southwest Museum of Engineering, Communications and Computation (2016). Robert Haig Weitbrect, First Acoustic Coupler for the TTY.  Retrieved January 12, 2016.


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