Thursday, August 20, 2009

His Ingenuity Helped the Deaf Tap the Power of Telephones

Source Link - His Ingenuity Helped the Deaf Tap the Power of Telephones

As an orthodontist, a licensed pilot and a sometime-professional magician, James C. Marsters mastered fields challenging for anyone, even more so for a profoundly deaf person such as himself.

His greatest feat was to conjure the text telephone, or TTY, which for the first time gave deaf people independent access to the telephone via teletype machines. It was the first in a string of technologies that help deaf people communicate.

Mr. Marsters, who died July 28 at 85 years old, defied the isolation many deaf people of his generation experienced. He willed himself into the mainstream long before there were technologies and programs to help deaf people do so.

In the days before TTYs, "deaf people were dying of heart attacks because they could not find help in time to make emergency calls," Harry G. Lang, author of "A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell," wrote in an email. Mr. Lang, who is also deaf, calls the TTY "a technological declaration of independence."

Though rendered deaf by scarlet fever in infancy, Mr. Marsters was raised by a mother who treated him as if his hearing was normal.

"I tried hard to please her by assuming that I could hear," he once told the Los Angeles Times.

Later in life, to allay concerns in the control tower at the prospect of a deaf pilot making a landing, he would radio air traffic controllers that his receiver was out, recalls his daughter, Jean Marsters. The controllers would respond by using flashing-light backup systems.

Mr. Marsters became an expert lip-reader and earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry. He helped finance his education by performing as a magician.

Mr. Marsters decided to pursue dentistry, but despite scoring high on entry exams was rejected at several schools because he was deaf. He was finally admitted at New York University after two years of pestering. He flew through the training, then specialized in orthodontics.

Deaf dentists were and are rare, but Mr. Marster's Southern California practice thrived and he opened a second office a few hundred miles away, commuting between the two in a Cessna he piloted himself. He spoke and read lips so well that many of his patients didn't realize he couldn't hear them.

Mr. Marster's home was outfitted with a flashing doorbell, a vibrating alarm and other gadgets, but he continued to be frustrated by his inability to use the telephone. A chance meeting with Robert H. Weitbrecht, a deaf physicist and teletype hobbyist, resulted in the brainstorm that led to the TTY. Mr. Weitbrecht patented the acoustic modem that linked teletypes over telephone lines.

In 1964, Mr. Marsters and two partners founded Applied Communications Corp. to produce modems -- the first model was called a PhoneType. They procured teletype machines from the Defense Department and junkyards. AT&T at first resisted, claiming that the new technology could damage its equipment. But later it supported the technology by donating old teletypes.

Distribution was slow in the beginning, but in the early 1970s, police and fire departments started to install the technology. By the 1980s, other companies jumped in with smaller teletypes and better modems, and hundreds of thousands of deaf people were communicating with TTYs.

"The ironic thing is that Bell's telephone plunged deaf people into isolation," says Karen Peltz Strauss, author of "A New Civil Right: Telecommunications Equality for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Americans." She adds, "They were left out by the mainstream telecommunications companies and so they insisted on inventing their own way of communicating."

As recounted in Mr. Lang's book, the early experiments with the acoustic modem were garbled, but after some tinkering by Mr. Weitbrecht, the two had their teletypes humming from hundreds of miles apart. A surviving transcript of that conversation reveals the first clear message sent via TTY:

"Are you printing me now?" it began. "Let's quit for now and gloat over the success."

No comments:

Post a Comment