For 50 years, the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco has been investigating theories, conducting research, and sometimes developing products related to sensory rehabilitation. For 42 of those years, Bill Gerrey has been at the heart of that work—sometimes playing a central starring role, sometimes a supporting cast member, and sometimes functioning something like the invisible power source, the thrumming below the surface that keeps all systems moving forward.
When Bill Gerrey was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, the same childhood retinal cancer that caused his father's blindness, his mother took the unusual stance of saying she was more concerned with having a healthy baby than one who could see. Her husband was a successful businessman (having built his own piano tuning business that, Gerrey estimates, annually grossed $500,000 in today's dollars ) and could do things many sighted men could not do. She was not afraid of blindness.
Gerrey's father had studied under the renowned Dr. Newell Perry and when young Bill was about four, the couple invited Dr. Perry to come to their Reno, Nevada, home for a visit.
"He took the train from California," Gerrey says. "My parents had me do a few parlor tricks [play the piano, recite some encyclopedic facts] and Perry's pronouncement was that this child deserved an education and should come to the California School for the Blind."
Thus the piano tuning business was liquidated and the family moved to California.
As a first grader at the California School for the Blind, however, Bill was miserable. The next year, he was enrolled in a brand-new resource classroom in a public school in Castro Valley, California, and continued his education among sighted students.
Much of his education took place at home. His father taught him to tune a piano, build a radio, and follow his own insatiable curiosity.
From Star Subject to Engineer
Smith-Kettlewell was established as a working foundation in the 1960s by two ophthalmologists. Research projects range from medical to functional, from finding methods to prevent or cure certain sensory conditions to developing solutions or alternative approaches when sensory loss gets in the way.
The first Tactile Vision Substitution System (TVSS) built in 1968, was an example of the latter: it examined ways of delivering visual information to someone who lacked physical eyesight. Consisting of a modified dental chair and camera, the TVSS presented vibrating patterns of visual images to a seated user's back, abdomen, or inner thigh. Bill Gerrey was first hired by Smith-Kettlewell as a research subject for the TVSS in 1969, prior to his 1971 graduation from California Polytechnic University. He proved to be a star subject in the course of that research, and would eventually build three of the TVSS devices himself.
Through the TVSS, Gerrey could feel the tactile vibrations on his back, for instance, and identify the positioning of a telephone in a room. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, such breakthroughs were nothing short of miraculous.
After graduating in 1971 with his bachelor's degree in electronics engineering, Gerrey came on staff at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute as more than a research subject. Some projects failed, some ran into unsolvable obstacles, and some became devices that are still available today, 40 years later.
Gerrey and his colleagues built tools that enabled a blind person to know where the hole was in a fabric to insert a snap, when a hypodermic-size vacuum tweezer had something in it, where the pins were on a bowling alley, and more. Typically, such devices replaced visual cues with audio ones. They built an audio micrometer for a blind worker at United Airlines, and an audio oscilloscope for blind workers who needed to detect voltage. They developed a way for a blind person to hear frequencies alerting the approach of an earthquake—and on it went.
When not building "stuff" as he likes to call it, Gerrey was sent to vocational rehabilitation agencies around the country, where he shared with rehabilitation professionals his methods, his research, and his confidence in the abilities of blind engineers and technicians. He was sent to Paris, France, where he advised the French government on establishing an engineering center there.
In 1980, he became editor of the Technical File, a quarterly journal distributed in braille, large print, and recorded formats to engineering professionals and hobbyists. Browsing those issues today can be a mind-numbing and dazzling sojourn through sometimes brilliant documents. The journal was akin to a series of verbal blueprints for blind technicians. Everything from step-by-step instructions for building a talking device of one kind or another, to detailed instructions for the blind individual interested in soldering, to philosophical musings on the abilities of the blind scientist in general can be found in those publications, many of which are available in an online archive.
Bill Gerrey's quirky fascinations with words and the ways in which we communicate are evident in those old journals, as they are in conversation. His brain seems to be firing on four or five topics at any given instant, so that linear conversation isn't exactly possible—but what does occur in conversation with Bill Gerrey is the verbal and intellectual equivalent of a carnival ride.
His interests are expansive—from amateur radio to early recordings to the ways in which sight and hearing gets into the human brain. He has an erector set, a slot machine, a collection of early 20th-century recordings, a player piano he has refurbished himself.
He talks about coming into the lab and just pulling "stuff' out of drawers—chips and transistors and circuit boards and such—to build other "stuff" from his imagination to solve problems or create new ways of getting a thing done.
Bill Gerrey likes to say that his has been a world of Tinker Toys and he is a master of playing with the Tinker Toy set. In his 40-plus years of scientific research, he says, he just liked building stuff. And he has loved sharing what he knows and has figured out with other blind people.
"The blind don't discriminate against themselves," he says. In other words, we know what we can do and it is best when we share the knowledge with one another. He likes to say he has kept no trade secrets. He has loved presenting alternative methods to others.
At 67, Gerrey decided that it was time to retire. That said, every morning in June when I called the lab, I found him there working.
"What I did was build stuff," he says, the joy of doing so ringing loud and clear. But technology has changed the way research and development occurs.
"I had my Tinker Toys," and, of course, he is referring to all those transducers and chips and physical elements of technical configuration. "But Tinker Toys are now obsolete. … Josh [he is referring to Dr. Joshua Miele, featured in earlier segments of this series] uses iPhones and iPads and configures new solutions, makes things happen."
Today's principle investigators may be using different tools—in many cases, tools that cannot be seen or held in the hands in the way that Gerrey's "Tinker Toys" could be, but his work and his genius are a solid foundation that enables them to proceed. As he listens to a 1918 Edison recording or fiddles with "the fanciest ham radio equipment I've ever owned," he is still tweaking, investigating, discovering, finding new and interesting ways of doing things without physical eyesight.
To learn more about the Smith Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, visit: www.ski.org.