Development of the TTY – Part III

Robert Traynor
January 25, 2016

Welcome to Hearing International’s third component of the development of the tty13TTY.  In parts 1 and 2 we learned that the inventor of the TTY, Robert H. Weitbrecht; a deaf orthodontist from Pasadena, James C. Marsters, and Andrew Saks, a deaf engineer and heir to Saks 5th Avenue, met at an A.G. Bell Convention in Salt Lake City in 1964.

Marsters introduced Weitbrecht to Saks, who brought his business and engineering experience to the trio, and the three men soon set to work making the TTY  a household word in the deaf community. They started by collecting and reconditioning Teletype machines discarded by the government, news services and companies such as Western Union. These three men became the founding group that took Robert Weitbrect’s invention of the TTY into the deaf community and began to spread its use around the world.

The past couple of weeks we have discussed the life of Robert Weitbrect and James Marsters, this week we will look at Andrew Saks, the third component of the “TTY trio”.


Andrew Saks

While there is not much public information on the early life of Andrew Saks (1917-1989), it is known that he was deafened by a mastoid infection in his infancy. As with many infants and young children born before antibiotics, his mastoid infection likely spread into meningitis which left him totally deaf. As the grandson of the founder of Saks Fifth Avenue, an upscale department store in New York City, his family had the funds to educate him orally and Saks was able to communicate by intelligible speech and lipreading. 

Saks studied electrical engineering at the University of California at Los Angeles. For many years he tinkered with visual communication devices that would assist deaf people, working on relay coils and flashing light signalers.  These devices were the early versions of a signaller that would allow deaf parents to know a baby was crying, a telephone was ringing or that someone was at the door, later developing into what we call these days as “assistive devices”.   

Andrew Saks even set up a private relay service for himself and his family in California in 1966. Once, while staying at a hotel in New York, he and his wife were able to use this private relay service by calling California and relaying to the room service personnel their order for breakfast while staying in a Washington DC hotel.  Quite a feat in the 1960s when the deaf could not use the telephone. 

Andrew’s specific contributions to the Trio were:

  • Providing start-up funds for APCOM to manufacture acoustic coupler modems which led to all the various Telephone Devices for the Deaf or TDD’s of the 1970s and 1980s.
  • Advocated successfully to have IRS allow the cost of TTYs and modems to be tax-deductible as medical expenses.
  • As the business person of the group, he was determined to build a future where deaf and hard of hearing individuals could communicate easily by phone.

Andrea J. Saks, Lobbied hard for the first transatlantic call between two deaf people in 1975.

While Andrew Saks was part of the trio that began the development of the communication technology for deaf people, possibly his greatest contribution is his daughter, Andrea J. Saks.  Ms. Saks has spent a lifetime advocating for tty20telecommunication equality, for first the deaf and later for all disabled individuals.

Growing up in a deaf household, from about age 2, Andrea was the communication liaison for both her father and mother for most things, including the telephone.  Even though Andrew Saks had set up a relay service, it was still cumbersome and it was easier to have young Andrea answer the phone and rely the information directly.

In 1975, she lobbied extensively for the first transatlantic call via TTY.  The first transatlantic telephone conversation between two deaf people took place May 12, 1975.  As part of the first telecommunications equipment exhibit at the US trade center in London, Ambassador Elliot Richardson first spoke of Alexander Graham Bell, who had intended for the telephone to help deaf people, then introduced Member of Parliament Jack Ashley for a discussion with Dr. Boyce Williams, Director of the Office of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders at the Department of Health Education and Welfare in Washington DC.

Andrea Saks has become an international telecommunications specialist for the deaf, dedicating her life to this challenge for the deaf and other disabled individuals. As of 2015, she is a private consultant telecommunication for the disabled.  As the chairperson of the Joint Coordination Activity on Accessibility and Human Factors and the coordinator of the Internet Governance Forum’s Dynamic Coalition on Accessibility and Disability, she is a key person in the creation of ITU accessibility initiatives and events.

Andrea Saks, ITC Laureate Presentation, 2008

Andrea Saks, ITC Laureate Presentation, 2008

In 2008, she was given the ITU World Telecommunication and Information Society Award and made a Laureate for her lifelong work in accessibility to telecommunications and ICTs for persons with disabilities.  In her acceptance speech for the ITU award, she discussed her father, the experience of growing up in a deaf household, and how difficult it was for deaf people to communicate without the use of a telephone.  Although it’s a bit long, you can listen to her story of how she interpreted phone calls for her parents from the time she was two and how awkward it was for her father to date her mother without the use of telecommunications.  (click on the link to the video).

Next week Hearing International will wrap up its discussion of the development of the TTY, by looking at the contributions of those who were outside the Trio of inventors, but nonetheless influential in the cause!




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.

Lore of whose Listening (2012).  History of TTY that deaf people use to communicate. Whoselisteningdotme  Retrieved January 11, 2016.

Andrew Saks (1917-1989). About TDI.  Retrieved January 24, 2016.

Saks, Andrea (2015).  My life advocating for accessible ITCS.  ITCU Blog.  Retrieved January 24, 2016.


Transatlantic TTY. (2016).  First Transatlantic TTY communication.  Retrieved January 24, 2016


Saks, A. (2008).  Presentation for the ITU World Telecommunication and Information Society Award, Laureate Presentation.  Retrieved January 25, 2016.

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