In the mid 1970s, as a young audiologist working in a university aural rehabilitation clinic, I inherited an old TTY. ‘Old’, at the time, was 1960s technology that cost between $650 and $1000, making it a luxury item that very few deaf individuals could afford. Each person who was communicating required their own TTY so it was definitely an expensive device. Additionally, the TTY was large, cumbersome, and somewhat frustrating to use. But it worked and, when available on both ends of a conversation, was of great benefit to the hearing impaired that could afford it and use it routinely. But – what was it? Where did it come from? How did we get to the great devices that we have today? Were deaf people involved in its development?
In The Beginning There was no Telephone Communication for the Deaf
“The telephone companies have not offered anything at realistic rates to deaf people, so some of us had to ‘go at it’ on our own to develop a suitable communication device using . . . cast-off teleprinters.” Dr. Robert H. Weitbrecht, September 15, 1966
In the United States there was a legal monopoly over the telephone system until 1984. This allowed the phone company, known as American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) to have extremely rigid controls on how consumers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and other consumers could access the phone system. At the time, all were prohibited from connecting any type of equipment that was not made by the AT&T system or its affiliates. If any of these so-called “foreign attachments” was made to a phone, the telephone company claimed the right to suspend or terminate phone service.
It was not until a landmark court ruling by the District of Columbia Circuit Court regarding the Hush-A-Phone in 1956 that the use of a phone attachment (made by a third party vendor) was allowed to be hooked to the system for the first time. Another monumental 1968 court decision regarding the Carterfone, allowing for two way radio communication through the telephone, further allowed any device not harmful to the system to be connected directly to the AT&T network. This decision allowed for the use of items and innovations such as answering machines, fax machines, and the modems that facilitated deaf communication via the telephone.
Enter Robert Haig Weitbrecht….
The father of telephone communication for the deaf was Robert Weitbrecht. Born deaf in Orange, California, Aprill 11, 1920, Weitbrecht was an unlikely person to become a hero for the American deaf community. Most of his life he had not been part of the deaf community nor had he socialized very much with deaf people. It is thought his lack of socialization with the deaf was due to his overprotective mother and his childhood memories of beingteased about his deafness. Partially due to parental encouragement and his own interests, young Robert developed a love of science, especially Astronomy. As a young boy he could feel the vibrations of Morse Code signals and used it for early communication and by age 15 he was allowed to connect his own practice oscillator–complete with batteries and a headphone–to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) code-sending machine to demonstrate that he could receive Morse code at 13 words per minute, the time necessary to be eligible for an amateur radio license. A month later, his mother interrupted his class and hand-delivered the license as his classmates looked on. He was officially a “ham.” An avid Ham radio operator, Weitbrecht’s interest in science guiided both his choice of professions and his hobbies.
Morse Code transmitted by radio waves became Weitbrecht’s particular obsession, because it permitted him to communicate with other radio hams despite his deafness. Beginning his college career at Santa Ana Junior College in 1938, his hard work ultimately paid off with a Bachleor’s degree in Astronomy from the University of California at Berkley in 1942 at age 22. During the War, he worked as a physicist at the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California and as an electronics scientist with the Manhattan Project during the war. Here he obtained experience with the early radio teletypes. In 1949, he was honored for his work and inventions with the Superior Accomplishment Award by the US Naval Air Missile Test Center in Point Mugu, California. In 1950, he sought to expand his long-distance contact by acquiring a used Model 12 “receive only” teletypewriter, at the time called a TTY, from a Los Angeles newspaper plant. With the new machine, he could receive radioteletype communications from Japan, the Philippine Islands, Australia, South America, and many places in the U.S.
It was not long before he realized that receiving radioteletype messages was only half of the equation and he wanted to send his own messages, not simply receive them. Weitbrecht finally obtained a TTY keyboard from a friend and using a string around the gear of the device and the shaft of an old washing machine motor, he managed to adjust the speed until the keyboard worked, thus developing a “send and receive” teleprinter. This was the first time Weitbrecht had full access to long-distance radio communications. In 1951, Weitbrecht moved to Wisconsin to work at Yerkes Observatory and, in his spare time, continued to develop electronic equipment for radio teletypewriter communication. While in Wisconsin, Weitbrecht obtained a Master’s degree in Astronomy from the University of Chicago in 1952.
In 1957, he moved to Stanford University, where he worked as a physicist at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Menlo Park for eleven years designing and building cameras and electronic equipment for the Lick Observatory. In 1964, he met some members of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, specifically Dr, James C. Marsters, a deaf orthodontist in Pasadena, who sent him a TTY and asked him to set up a system so they could communicate with each other. As a result, he successfully developed the first acoustic coupler that allowed the teletypewriter to be used with a telephone (at the time recently made legal); later this development became known as the Weitbrecht’s Modem. He acquired a patent and formed a company to manufacture these acoustic couplers. While none of the partners profited financially from their venture, the invention of the Weitbrect Modem has had profound repercussions for the Deaf community. Weitbrecht was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Gallaudet University in 1974 for his contributions to science and the quality of life of the hearing impaired worldwide.
Dr. Robert Haig Weitbrect died much too soon in an automobile accident in 1983, at the age of 63.
Crawford, S. (2003). Hush-A-Phone. Retrieved January 12, 2016.
Lore of whose Listening (2012). History of TTY that deaf people use to communicate. Whoselisteningdotme Retrieved January 11, 2016.
Computer History Museum. Carterfone. Retrieved January 12, 2016.
Kid Avalanche (2010). Morse Code. Retrieved January 12, 2016.
Southwest Museum of Engineering, Communications and Computation (2016). Robert Haig Weitbrect, First Acoustic Coupler for the TTY. Retrieved January 12, 2016.
Ultra Tec (2002). PRO 80 Manuals, Acknowledgement. Retrieved January 11, 2016.