Transcript: Legends and Pioneers of Blindness Assistive Technology
Hobe Sound, FL
April 28, 2004
Introduction to Interview with Deane Blazie
Tony Candela: Who would have thought that the 17-year-old teenager who worked as the Saturday boy for Tim Cranmer would develop into one of the more famous engineers in the blindness assistive technology industry himself? But that's what happened to Deane Blazie.
And it's no wonder. When your mentor is Tim Cranmer, inventor of the first auditory calculator, a modified abacus and the Cranmer Modified Brailler, you can't help but get involved in blindness assistive technology.
After earning his engineering degree, Deane created the company Maryland Computer Services, where among other things he developed the Talking Terminal. A young Ted Henter was one of his best customers and best advocates for the Talking Terminal.
Then Deane opened his most famous company, Blazie Engineering and it is here that his primary contribution to the blindness assistive technology industry was made.
Deane and his team at Blazie Engineering created the first affordable and fully functional portable note taker, the Braille 'N Speak.
Offshoots of the Braille 'N Speak include the Type and Speak and of course the Braille Lite series. These devices are still in the hands of thousands of blind people and although they are no longer manufactured, there are many of us out there who still cling to our Blazie products.
Deane is now retired and living in Hobe Sound, Florida. We sat for several hours and talked about how he got into the business, the development of the Braille 'N Speak and the many unique concepts embedded in that device, and his observations about the blindness technology industry.
Deane hopes to find another project in blindness assistive technology. In the meantime, in his retirement he helps his son, Brian Blazie, who works for a mainstream technology company. Deane still loves to work out and run and gets together with his old buddy, Ted Henter. Both of their companies eventually became part of the Freedom Scientific corporation.
Here's my interview with Deane Blazie.
Beginning of Interview
Tony Candela: Deane, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with me. It's a pleasure to be here in Hobe Sound.
Deane Blazie: My pleasure to do it.
Tony Candela: We will find out about everything you've done in your life, but I am interested in knowing what you're doing now. You're retired from Blazie Engineering and Freedom Scientific and what are you doing now?
Deane Blazie: I am retired. I do a lot of fun things. I bought a sailboat so I do some sailing. I'm just taking up surfing. I do a lot of fishing. I'm still running and trying to stay active enough to keep my body running. I try to do a marathon once a year. Do some mountain climbing with some friends and skiing. You name it. I just try to keep active and have fun.
I also help a couple of friends of mine, my son and another friend. They have a business up in Stuart and I help them design some circuits now and then and do a little bit of programming. I try to keep my mind active that way too.
Tony Candela: Deane, how old are you now?
Deane Blazie: I'm fifty-seven.
Tony Candela: You're a young retiree.
Deane Blazie: Yeah, I guess I'm fairly young. I've been retired for four years so that is pretty young.
Tony Candela: I should be so lucky.
Deane Blazie: I enjoy it. I'll tell you. I highly recommend it.
Tony Candela: Brian is your son.
Deane Blazie: Oldest son.
Tony Candela: How many children do you have?
Deane Blazie: Three. Brian's around thirty-five. Chris is out in San Diego and he's thirty-two. And Stephen is twenty.
Tony Candela: And you are married?
Deane Blazie: Yes. Thirty-six years. Going on thirty-seven.
Tony Candela: And your wife's name is?
Deane Blazie: Marty.
Tony Candela: Marty.
Where were you born?
Deane Blazie: I was born in Detroit, Michigan. My father worked for a company that made— actually they invented the first moldings for cars made out of stainless steel or chrome, chrome moldings on the sides of cars. He worked for that company in the auto industry and they opened a new plant down in Kentucky to try to get away from some of the union troubles they were having up in Detroit at the time. So he opened a plant in Frankfort, Kentucky, and he moved the family down there in 1952.
So I actually grew up in Kentucky. Spent most—actually all—of my younger years there, from when I was five until 1968 when I graduated from the university and moved away.
Tony Candela: Your last name, Blazie, what nationality is that? What background?
Deane Blazie: My father changed it. His name was Hungarian, Balazsi. My mother's side is Polish so I'm considered a Hungarian-Polack.
Tony Candela: Tell us about your mom.
Deane Blazie: My mom's still alive. She's eighty-six years old. Lives in Kentucky. I see her three or four times a year. We still go up there quite often. She's doing fine. She is mentally in great shape. She's eighty-six so she has trouble getting around but she's just a great mother. I owe all my success to my mother and dad. They were great parents. We had a really good home growing up. No divorces in the family and they were really nice, great, encouraging parents.
Tony Candela: Were they first generation? Or were they born and raised in the United States?
Deane Blazie: My mother was born actually in Canada, near Calgary, in a place called Kolmund in Alberta. My dad was born in Detroit, but his parents were from Budapest, Hungary and my mother's parents were from just outside of Warsaw, Poland. They all immigrated to the United States around the turn of the century. I don't know the exact times, but around that time.
In fact, my mother almost moved back to Poland and she was there for about a year and there was so much sickness among she and her sister that the doctor recommended that they move back here. They couldn't take the new environment.
Lucky for me, otherwise I'd be raised in Poland.
Tony Candela: So this was before you were born when she almost went back?
Deane Blazie: She was a child and they broke out in sores and just had a real health problem there.
Tony Candela: Was this after World War II?
Deane Blazie: No, this was back, must have been in the '20s, the 1920s.
Because my mother was like five or six or seven years old. And she was born in 1917, so that would have been in the '20s.
Tony Candela: Given the way history subsequently went, it was probably good that she moved back.
Deane Blazie: Yeah, I think it was good. It was certainly good for the family. Being raised here in the United States was much preferable to being in an Eastern Bloc country.
Tony Candela: It probably would have been very dangerous during World War II and the time leading up to World War II.
We all are very grateful that you were born and raised in the United States in Detroit.
Deane Blazie: Thanks.
Tony Candela: You said that you now are keeping very active, very busy, in your retirement and you try to do at least one marathon a year. How do you keep in shape?
Deane Blazie: Well, running is probably my biggest [way of] keeping in shape but I also do a little bit of weight lifting, but mostly running and just keeping active [in] sports, like sailing and surfing and fishing and things that get you out of the house and keep exercising.
When I'm running a marathon I tend to train about four months in advance. But in a typical week, when I'm not in marathon training, I'll run I would say four miles every other day. And then on the odd days, I lift weights.
Tony Candela: Do you have a gym here, in your house? It's a very lovely house.
Deane Blazie: I tend to do all my exercise outside. Since we live in Florida, the weather here is just beautiful. When I do weights, I grab some heavy hand weights and I head out to the beach and I walk the beach for about forty-five minutes and do a routine of heavy hand exercises.
When I run, I run out on the road. I really love the outdoors.
Tony Candela: You mentioned before we turned the tape on that Ted Henter is coming by to visit you soon.
Deane Blazie: Yes. He's supposed to arrive here Monday evening and we're—he and his wife Mel—are going to go sailing for a few days. We don't get together as often as I'd like, or he'd like, and so we just have to kind of force ourselves to make it happen.
Tony Candela: And we'll come back to when you first met Ted and all that later, but it's nice to hear that you two have stayed in touch and [have] what sounds like a good friendship.
Deane Blazie: Yeah. Ted is a very close friend. Good guy.
Tony Candela: You also had Brian working with you at Blazie Engineering. Now Brian continues his career and you're helping him out a little bit. Brian is up in Stewart, Florida, where people who are aware of blindness assistive technology...know...I think the company called Triformations. Does Brian work for them or is he working in a different business?
Deane Blazie: No, he's in a different business, not related to blindness. They do all kinds of electronic and mechanical design. They worked on robots for a while. They designed a GPS system for golfers to tell you how far you are from the hole, how far you hit. They are working on a clinical chair to sort of do the things that a chiropractor would do, so your computer-controlled chair automatically manipulates the body.
They're working on a bunch of solar-energy products to help replace streetlights with solar-powered streetlights, which is going to be mandated pretty soon by most municipalities. Just a lot of projects like that.
Tony Candela: Very interesting projects.
And you do some programming, you mentioned?
Deane Blazie: Programming and we're designing, helping then design a radio frequency amplifier right now, 51 amplifier.
Tony Candela: You obviously had to learn your programming skills. You had to learn all your skills. You were, or I guess we should say, you are an engineer. Let's go back in time. Let's explore a little bit how you got to the point where you knew you even wanted to be an engineer.
Tell me a little bit about growing up in Detroit. How much of that do you remember before you went down to Kentucky?
Deane Blazie: Actually, very little. I was five years old when we moved from Detroit to Kentucky and I have vague memories of the houses we lived in. We lived right next to my mother's sister and her husband, my aunt and uncle, and my two cousins, first cousins. Our house was right next to them. My uncle used to deliver milk to our house. He was the local milkman.
Back in those days, they had literally milkmen that came to your door and put milk on the porch. I remember those things.
I remember boating with my father [who] had a boat. We did some boating and he did some fishing. But that's about all.
I remember ice-skating and a lot of kids playing hockey. I remember the cold weather and the snow. It was pretty blustery cold weather in Detroit. Not a habitable place, if you ask me.
Tony Candela: I understand that you are called, if you are in the northeast, a snowbird. A snowbird is someone who lives in the north in the summer and comes down to Florida in the winter. Are you a snowbird? Do you live in Maryland part of the time?
Deane Blazie: We do live in Maryland part of the time. We are residents of Florida. We changed our residency back in '95, moved down here. But we still spend a few months a year in Maryland, just because we have friends up there and the spring and fall are pleasant in Maryland and so we go up once a year and garden and do the things that we don't do down here. This is a water place and we're near the ocean so we really don't have a garden and do the things that we used to do in Maryland.
Tony Candela: And so you assiduously avoid the snow and ice that you remember from your early days in Detroit?
Deane Blazie: We do now.
After we moved out of Detroit we moved to Kentucky and from there I've never really lived in a cold environment, a really cold environment.
I remember living in Maryland and thinking, "Gosh, I wish it was either cold here or warm here, instead of in the middle." In other words, when winter comes I'd like to be able to ski all the time or ice skate or enjoy the cold. But in Maryland, it was rainy most of the winter and cold. You couldn't ski much. And you couldn't ice skate. It was kind of in between and I always thought, "Gee, if we could be in the warm weather climate, like Florida, or in the cold, like the northeast where you could go out and enjoy the cold and have snow all the time, instead of slush and wet." But nothing is perfect, you know.
Tony Candela: I hail from the Bay Area of San Francisco, which sounds similar in weather patterns to what you're describing in Maryland. It stays in that narrow zone of temperature. And people have to travel to the warmth or travel to the cold. Can't get it right there.
Deane Blazie: Yeah. Sunshine, I really find sunshine affects your mood and your whole psyche and I really enjoy, down here, the sunshine.
One thing I miss in Maryland is the sunshine. We have so many cloudy days up there.
Tony Candela: How old were you when you moved to Kentucky?
Deane Blazie: I was five years old. I think it was February in 1952. Actually it wasn't. It was like June. We had gotten out of school. My dad had already lived in Kentucky for almost a year, [he went] back and forth, and we got out of school and moved down there. He and my mother found a house, a really nice house, and we moved out into the country. And that's where I remember most of my childhood memories, where I grew up.
Tony Candela: You hadn't started school yet, I take it, when you moved down there?
Deane Blazie: No, I was in kindergarten in Kentucky, I'm sorry, in Maryland, in Michigan, Detroit, and when we moved down to Kentucky I started the first grade. Actually, it was in the middle of the school year because I remember having to enter school in the middle of the first grade.
Tony Candela: And do you remember anything about those early years? Did you have a hard time adjusting to a new place?
Deane Blazie: I remember it was difficult adjusting to school for the first little while. New friends, and not knowing what to do, how to act, what people were like.
The language down there was very southern accent so getting used to that took a while. But, it didn't take long. School was fine.
I wasn't a very good student. In fact, I was probably at the bottom of my class. Most of my elementary school, all of my elementary school and most of high school, I had, actually they would call them learning disabilities now: attention deficit disorder, probably hyperactivity. I don't really know because back then they didn't diagnose such things.
But I just remember being, having a difficult time in school. And it wasn't any language problem, it was just the nuns, I went to a Catholic school all my life, first twelve years. And the nuns just said I was just a slow learner.
And it turned out when I looked back, I can see it was attention deficit, what they call learning disabilities now, but it was really just a different way of learning.
Tony Candela: So what would happen to you in the classroom? Can you recall sitting there listening to a lesson or trying to do a math problem or something? What would happen to you?
Deane Blazie: I was a poor reader, first of all. I do remember that. I vaguely remember not paying very good attention. My mind would wander during the day, usually thinking about other things instead of paying attention. Then when it came time to answer questions I would be in another world.
And so I just scored very poorly on tests. I never failed a grade or anything but I was just at the bottom of the class.
Tony Candela: Did you get scolded a lot by the nuns?
Deane Blazie: I was always disciplined—what you would call a discipline problem to the nuns. I was always in trouble. I wouldn't pay attention. I would make a lot of noise in class. Make a lot of noises, just strange noises and bring things to school like fire crackers, chemicals. I was very technical. I was sort of a geeky kid, you would say these days. I hung around with the other kids. We used to experiment with chemistry sets, make small firecrackers and little bombs like. Take a CO2 cartridge and fill them up with gunpowder and watch them blow up. It was fortunate that we never got hurt. Very lucky on our part.
It was very technical. Played with electronic stuff when I was probably ten or so. Gosh, [at] eight or nine I used to build a lot of model airplanes. Just tons of model airplanes. The plastic models first and then I got into gasoline powered flying airplanes with control lines.
Eventually, after I became an adult, I got into radio control. But I remember building a lot of model airplanes and flying them. Messing around with go-carts, my brother and I built a bunch of go-carts when we were young. Put gasoline motors on them and somehow did that. My father used to help us a lot with that, building parts. Just always active, doing things, building things and fixing things.
Tony Candela: Being physically involved in what you were doing too as well as mentally involved.
Who taught you how to build model airplanes, for example?
Deane Blazie: Really nobody. I used to buy plastic models and those you could just sort of snap together. And then after a while you'd re-glue them together. I just picked it up on my own. That's what I used to get for Christmas and birthdays were plastic models. And I'd build them and paint them and fixed them and just let them go.
I pretty much learned those things on my own.
I started to say when I was like nine or ten years old I got an electrical set, an experimenter set with electrical things, you know. It was sort of a bed board and you could put wires on it and wire up, like, a buzzer and a light bulb. It had batteries and Morse code switches. I remember I spent a lot of time with those, learning circuits and learning the difference between AC and DC and batteries, and all of that.
I was big in the Boy Scouts, too. When I earned merit badges I remember earning the electronics merit badge and that really got me started into learning about electronics and I really took to it. I just loved building circuits and making things.
Tony Candela: Is there a point along the way where in school you remember things starting to change for you, that you were able to pay attention more? I am assuming that sooner or later you had to pay attention enough to learn how to do math, and things like that. Is that the way it went?
Deane Blazie: Yes. I remember distinctly actually. A few things happened. One, you get used to being at the bottom of the class after a while, to where you don't expect to do well.
But I remember we had a spelling bee and I was probably a sophomore in high school and typically I would do poorly. But this one time I managed to be the second to the last guy to go out. So I almost won the spelling, just a daily spelling contest.
That sort of thing raises your self-esteem a bit. But then in math, I remember geometry in particular. I took geometry and it was just easy for me. I always got As on the tests and I think it was sort of surprising to the nuns and my fellow students. Here I was at the bottom of the class and all of a sudden Deane can do math, algebra, geometry, trigonometry. In those things I was sort of the head of the class.
And we went to the university and one of the nuns I was particularly fond of and she was fond of me. Because she was very excited about mathematics. She was really into it. She loved it and she used to get all excited about telling us about solving the equations and inventing proofs for equations and that really turned me on.
She took us to the university where we took some tests and tried to get some head start work toward college. I did well and so math became really easy for me. My biggest problem was in English, taking English classes. I don't think I ever read a book in high school, a full book.
We had to do it, of course, but I used to read the Classics Illustrated comic book edition, you know. They used to call them Classics Illustrated comic books, condensed versions of books. And I'd go out and I'd sneak the Classics Illustrated comic book and I'd read that, which was tough still, but I'd read it. So I'd manage to pass English.
I remember my senior year, my mother coming to school talking to the nuns. How is Deane Blazie doing, you know? And of course I was a real discipline problem. She got calls probably once a week for, "You've got to talk to Deane Blazie about being noisy in class." So essentially what they told my mother was that was I'm doing okay and that I'll graduate, but that I should probably look for a trade school because I'll never make it in college. So don't bother to send me to college.
I remember my mother saying to the nuns, "Deane's going to go to college and he's going to pass if it takes him twenty years, he's going to get a college degree." Because that's the way it is.
I don't know whether it was that, that partially motivated me, or what, but I went to college and I had a great time and to tell you the truth it was easy. I was lucky. Something happened. And that's typical of attention deficit or learning disabilities. You find a way around it. You work your own way around whatever this deficit or this learning problem is and you figure out another way to learn.
Tony Candela: I'd like to think that you saved up all your energy for the final push.
To what do you attribute your mother's, not only her faith in you, but also her obvious faith in education? Was she from an educated family or was there something you can point to that gave her that faith?
Deane Blazie: She wasn't from an educated family. I think I was the first one in both lines of the family to get a college degree. Even though I had two older siblings, I managed to graduate a semester before my older brother.
I think what it was, is that my mother just, the family was fairly intelligent. They all had good jobs. My grandfather always had a great job. He worked hard but he always had a good job. And my father always had a very good job. He worked hard. He was a supervisor. He sometimes had two or three jobs in order to make ends meet. But he never had a problem. He always made things work out. So life was pretty good to them.
We were certainly not upper middle class or anything like that. Probably just the opposite but life was never a real struggle for him because my dad was smart and he worked hard.
I think my mother saw the value of education, just through the people she met and in life, and she realized that in order for people to get ahead that education was very, very important. So she stressed it with all of us. And all four of us, my older siblings went to college. She required that.
Tony Candela: Tell me the names of your siblings and where are they now?
Deane Blazie: My older sister is Diane. She lives in Glasgow, Kentucky, with her husband, Ben. My older brother, Joe, is living in Chicago. He's an engineer. He's retired, in fact. He retired about a year ago. Worked for Western Electric, AT&T, Bell Labs, that conglomerate for most of his life. In fact he has a place here in Florida and comes down and visits a few times a year.
My younger sister, Candy—Francie's her real name but we call her Candy. She lives in Kentucky also. She's retired. She's a retired teacher and she worked for the State of Kentucky for probably twenty-something years. So she's retired living in I think Harrodsburger near Lake Harris.
Tony Candela: What did she teach?
Deane Blazie: That's a good question and I really have no idea. I don't remember what she taught.
Actually, she spent her last twenty-something years working for the State in disability payments, black lung disease. She used to go out and talk to clients about what their problems were and moderate them.
Tony Candela: Lots of mining in Kentucky.
Deane Blazie: Yes. Lots of mining and lots of black lung disease. Lots of problems.
Tony Candela: I can surmise now from what you've told me so far that you come from good stock. You and your siblings have all achieved well and sounds like your parents were, in a different time, they would have been college graduates and they would have achieved the same level of education that you and your siblings did and they were different times but you come from good stock.
Deane Blazie: Yes, there's no question about it. I really owe any success I've had to my parents and the family life that they created.
Tony Candela: We will not allow you to be overly humble in this interview, because an awful lot, if not most of what you've achieved, you did with your own effort. I think we're all very grateful that you had the transition from that noise making, attention-challenged child to a much more highly focused engineer.
Where along the way, I'm assuming in your high school years, did you become convinced you were going to go to college?
Deane Blazie: Like I said, I got interested in electronics at a very young age. One of the things I remember doing, and this is kind of just an anecdote, I was so into this wiring up electrical things that I actually, my neighbor across the road, lived maybe one hundred yards across the road. We strung some wires from his house to my house and I wired up a light on each house in the Morse code key to where I could send Morse code to him and it would blink the light in his house and he could send back Morse code to me and it would blink the light in my house.
Now these were big regular light bulbs, 100-watt light bulbs, strung up in the air, across the road. When I think back I think how dangerous it was, first of all. It was 110 volts, plugged into the wall. It wasn't batteries or something. If someone touched those it could have electrocuted them.
And here we were maybe ten, eleven-year-old people. So that's how hard I was into things.
I began to do short wave listening. My father bought my brother Joe and I a Silvertone, which was a Sears and Roebucks short wave receiver for Christmas one year. And I remember staying up late listening to that thing and listening to short wave broadcasts and Morse code broadcasts and CH2 Canada, the Time broadcast and just loving radio.
About that time, my sister was dating, she was four years older than I was, so she was fifteen or sixteen and she was dating. And one of her boyfriends, who's now my brother-in-law, Ben Quinn, he was a ham [radio] operator. And when I found out he was a ham operator and he found out I was short wave listening, he immediately latched on with me and helped me out, mentored me into ham radio. I guess I was eleven or twelve, maybe thirteen. I think I was eleven when I got my first ham radio license. I was WN4AND. I got a novice license and that's what really got me into electronics in a big way.
Tony Candela: And you remember that.
Deane Blazie: Oh yes. You never forget your first call sign. Never. In fact you generally never forget any of your call signs. Right now I'm WA3TRP and I'll probably keep that until I die.
It used to be that you had to give up your call sign when you moved to other areas. When I moved from Kentucky out to New Mexico, for example, I became WA5 something.
So Ben and I used to spend a lot of time doing ham radio things. I eventually got my general class license and Ben and I used to do contests, ham radio contests, where we contact as many contacts as you can over a two or three day period. We used to stay up all night doing that and we built 1,000-watt amplifiers and all those kinds of things. In fact I spent most of my high school time, instead of dating a lot I'd spend it in my little ham radio room out in the garage building kilowatt amplifiers and radio receivers and transmitters. Just had a great time with it.
Tony Candela: You are into fitness and athletics to some extent now. Were you at all back in your childhood and teen years?
Deane Blazie: Not really. No, I played basketball a little bit in high school. Basketball was the only sport we had in high school. We did have track one year and I did run track. I wasn't particularly astute at athletics. I was fairly clumsy when I was a kid. I think that was a genetic thing, although my dad was a triathlete so I don't know how I got it but I think it had to do with the learning disability. A lot of kids with learning disabilities tend to be slow in maturing physically, athletically, at least. So I had a hard time with it.
I didn't really start running or worrying about my health in running until I was about twenty-seven years old and I've been running since then.
Tony Candela: Did something happen when you were twenty-seven to make you focus on that?
Deane Blazie: Yes. A fellow that I was working with at the time, in Maryland, he was forty-something, late 40s. He was playing tennis and had a massive heart attack. He didn't die. He survived but he was also a Type A person where he was constantly doing things, very active and I was considered to be a Type A person. Some one said, "You better take note of that and learn how to live and how to be healthy."
So I did. I started running with some neighbors in the neighborhood. And I found it was really relaxing. I found that I really enjoyed it. I found after awhile, after some training, a few months, you could get to the point where you felt you could run forever and never have to stop, because it was effortless and it was a great feeling, I remember that.
Tony Candela: Now what inspired you to go out for the track team back in high school?
Deane Blazie: They just encouraged it, the kids to do it, and I needed to do something after school so I just did it. I don't remember who actually encouraged me to do it but I did. I don't even remember what events I participated in in high school.
Tony Candela: But you remember all your ham radio calls.
Deane Blazie: Oh yeah. I remember all those.
Tony Candela: So where in your class, roughly, not to embarrass you, you don't have to say exactly, did you graduate? In the middle of the pack? Toward the upper end? Toward the lower end?
Deane Blazie: That's a good question. Our school didn't keep, being a Catholic school we had twenty-six people in my class, my graduating class. That's a very low number. And I don't know that they even kept scores about where we placed. But I'd probably be in the mid to lower part of the class.
I remember my first year in college I had the highest grade point average of anyone in their graduating class. First year, which surprised me more probably than anyone.
But in grade school I know specifically I was one of the bottom three students.
Tony Candela: You were growing up during a time when many folks who developed the blindness assistive technologies were really coming into their own, were being influenced heavily by what we call the "Sputnik" era and you were growing up right in the middle of the 1950s, your formative years I'll call them, and I suppose the two things that we all remember are the difficulties surrounding the fear of Communism and the Cold War—of course we did have a war in Korea at that time—and the other big thing people tend to remember, especially when we come to discussions of technology, is the big push the government put on to develop people to work in the sciences, the engineering field, because the Soviet Union had sent up a satellite before we could.
Do you remember anything about that time at all, just from the mood around? Did you have to do air raid drills, things like that?
Deane Blazie: As I remember, in school, we did the air raid drills and we'd hide under our desks. I remember that a lot. It was a fair amount of worry on my part about nuclear bombs going off. It was something you literally, not every day, but you thought about a lot. Because it was drilled into your heads about bomb shelters, ICBMs. It was a tough time.
I don't remember any emphasis on scientific education. I don't remember that until actually probably in the '60s, hearing about that. But I do remember Sputnik going up and going outside and trying to see some of the balloons we sent up and actually see Sputnik, the reflection off the sun, the sun off Sputnik.
I remember all that. It was interesting to me. And I read all those articles because I was interested in science.
Tony Candela: Did you think about being an astronaut at that point?
Deane Blazie: No. I've never spent much time thinking about that. Building a satellite would have been something I'd think about but not being up there in one.
Tony Candela: And were you able to see the sun glinting off of Sputnik?
Deane Blazie: Yes, I sure did. And some of the balloons we sent up. I forgot what they were called. They were very visible.
Tony Candela: To many of us, that time is so long ago now, we've forgotten the thrill, the newness of it all. But you don't recall being inspired at that point toward a scientific career or anything like that because it was still early in your life. But you remember being interested about it.
Deane Blazie: Yes. That's when I was very much into ham radio. At that point I was so into it and I knew in high school that I wanted to be an electrical engineer. I made that decision and that was just what I wanted to be. Into electronics.
And I found out later that it was called Electrical Engineering and not electronics engineering. But I knew right away that's what I wanted to do. So when I graduated I went to the University of Kentucky and enrolled in that program.
Tony Candela: Did they use the word "electronics" back in let's say your high school years? Was that the word being used?
Deane Blazie: Yes. The word was electronics and electrical was more or less considered what we call "power" engineering now. But I found out it was all encompassed in the electrical engineering department at the universities.
Tony Candela: And some of the things you were putting together, as a kid, did you run into the transistor somewhere along the way? I know we all had transistor radios. I'm curious as to what connection to the electronics you had back in your high school years.
Deane Blazie: All the things I built in my ham radio shack were all tubes. There were no transistors up until later in my life. They were all tube type things.
I remember my dad came home with a transistor radio once and it looked fairly small, back then even. Maybe a pack of cigarettes. We were all amazed that you could do a radio, an AM radio, that would be that small, battery powered, that you could carry around.
They were expensive too. But a friend of his loaned him one. He was in a business, electronics selling business, of radios, and he came home with it.
But my first introduction to transistors, I remember this really well, when I was learning ham radio with my brother-in-law Ben, Ben said, "There's this guy you gotta meet. We'll take a ride out to his house. Tim Cranmer is his name." And Ben said, "He's a blind guy." And that started me thinking, "Gosh, how did he do that? How did he do ham radio and be a blind guy?"
Anyhow, we rode out to Tim's house and he had a beam antenna on his home. I think we stopped in and said, "Hi." And that's the first time I met him. I didn't see him again probably for about a year when I got my general class license and I needed a transmitter. And so I ended up, some one said Tim had a used HT32 Helicrafter transmitter.
So my dad took me out there and we bought it from Tim and that became my main radio.
Tony Candela: In about what year, when you first heard of Tim?
Deane Blazie: About 1960, maybe '61. Could have been '58 or '59 too. Tim was working for the State government there in Frankfort. He was a ham operator.
Then probably a couple of years later I was probably sixteen, somebody in the town decided that we ought to have a ham radio club in Frankfort. The town was growing. There was probably a dozen hams in town so they called a meeting and it was at Tim Cranmer's house and I went, my brother-in-law Ben went. I think my dad was there. He took me. We had this ham radio club meeting to organize a Frankfort Amateur Radio Club.
That's when I really met Tim. We talked quite a bit that night and Tim said, "Hey, I need somebody to work for me on Saturdays. Would you want to do that?" And I had a driver's license, I guess at that point. I must have. But I was fifteen or sixteen and so I said, "Sure." I always had a job, from when I was eleven years old I delivered papers. I always had money and I had a job.
And so I went to work for Tim. And I worked for him every Saturday for I guess my junior, senior year in high school and all through college. About six years, I was his Saturday boy he used to call me.
Tony Candela: What did you do?
Deane Blazie: I did everything. I remember we built things with transistors, which is the first time I had ever seen them. Repaired his radios. I used to write checks, help him balance his accounts. I opened mail, read things to him. I was a very poor reader, which Tim recognized and it drove him crazy. I did some reading to him.
I remember he was in woodworking. He had a million hobbies. He did it all. He was a piano tuner. He had hobbies. One of them was woodworking. He bought a thing called a Shopsmith which was a drill press and a lathe and a circular saw, a jigsaw. All these built in one little unit.
He used to make wooden bowls and shelves and things. I used to help him paint them and things. I remember spending all afternoon one day in his garage painting these shelves with this obnoxious odor some kind of varnish or shellac. It felt like I could hardly breathe and we used to joke about that a lot, years later.
I used to help Tim build things like, not help him build it but actually do little things. Because at that time I was too young to know much about what I was doing. One of the things Tim wanted to do, I remember when transistors came out, was be able to take a cassette player, or actually back then mostly they were reel to reel, and be able to play it back faster but try to get rid of the Donald Duck talk, the compression which we now use every day and don't even think about it.
Well, Tim didn't know how to do it but he thought if he made a flip-flop, which was just, not to go into detail about what a flip-flop is, but essentially it can divide frequency by two. So he figured if he fed the audio in one side of the flip-flop and then he divided that by two and out came the other side it would be half the frequency. So we should be able to double the tape speed and still be able to hear the person's voice properly.
Well, it was a good idea except he didn't know enough about signal processing and distortion to know that that would cause distortion. But, the fact is, when he played it back it would in fact divide it by two and you could hear the tone come out the other end at half the frequency.
We were thinking, "Well, this is great." I remember wiring up this flip-flop using transistors and it was just a real neat thing for me. It got me more excited about electronics, that they could be so small.
Tony Candela: How much older than you was Tim?
Deane Blazie: Roughly twenty years. He died about three years ago.
Tony Candela: So when you met him he was an established, working professional, working for the State?
Deane Blazie: Yes.
Tony Candela: Do you remember what he was doing?
Deane Blazie: I remember quite a bit about his career. He started out in the music business. He would play the instruments in bars and he'd make great money compared to most everybody else because he was willing to work at it. He could play just about any instrument you can imagine. I've heard him play woodwind instruments, banjos, guitars, mandolins, a few instruments that I don't even know what the names of them were. He played all those things. Piano, very well. He played in bars and made music that way. And he eventually went on to be a rehab counselor for the State.
He did that for a number of years in Louisville and after a while he became the head of the Department for the Blind. And he ran the Department for the Blind for a number of years. Got into some political battles years ago when they were trying to, this was in the mid-'60s, '65-'68, the State was trying to combine the Department for the Blind with the Department of Rehab. And in Kentucky, like most places, the Department for the Blind reported directly to the Governor's Cabinet. And they did not want the Blindness Division to be part of Rehab. It would be swallowed up. They feared they would not get good services.
So Tim fought a major battle with the State and he won the battle, with the help of NFB [National Federation of the Blind] at the time. I remember discussions between he and Dr. Gernigan about it. He won the battle but he ended up losing his position as the head of the Department of Rehab.
But actually I think it was partly...He could have stayed on and continued fighting the battle but he won the battle and the Division became its own State Department for the Blind. But he ended up taking another position called Director of Technical Services and he gave up the Chairman position or the Director's position of the Department.
And what that allowed him to do was to focus on technology. So his whole job was just providing technology for people in the State that needed technology.
Tony Candela: You stayed in touch with Tim through all these years? Through this part of his life? Were you still aware or did you find all this out later?
Deane Blazie: I was aware, I found some of it out later, the details. But I was aware of, because I worked for him every Saturday, I would be there when he had discussions with people about things and I would overhear them and I would wonder what's going on. And I remember him talking to Dr. Jernigan a number of times about this battle that he was waging there in Kentucky. I worked for him till I got out of college, which was in 1968.
Tony Candela: Did you meet any of the folks he was talking to or was it all phone calls or did you just happen to be in the room when he was talking?
Deane Blazie: I met maybe half a dozen blind people when I worked for Tim. His best friend at the time was Fred Gissoni. He and Fred were great friends. Fred's wife, Ethel, and Tim's wife, Thelma, were really good friends. As a foursome they were great friends.
I used to take Tim to Lexington, to Fred's house to spend the weekend quite often. In fact I remember one weekend we went to Fred's house on a Saturday. I dropped him off there but they asked me to stay and Dr. Leslie Kay was there and he had his glasses, the sonar glasses that he had invented. This was back in the early '60s. He was way ahead of his time. I would say it was mid-'60s, not early '60s. And he was way ahead of his time.
He had this rather small package, using transistors, which again were fairly new at the time and he made these glasses. I remember thinking how great it was. They had some broken wires and I had to solder his wires, which is why they asked me to stay. But Tim and Fred were evaluating these glasses for Dr. Kay. It was really pretty neat.
So I met Tim. Tim had a lot of conversations with a fellow, a very technical fellow up in Canada called Jim Swail. Jim used to build things and send them down to Tim. Tim would evaluate them, play with them, make recommendations, and send them back to Jim and Jim would change it. I think they educated each other. Jim can tell you the truth about that because I don't know, but that was my impression.
Jim was a very knowledgeable fellow and he was a really nice fellow, by the way. I've met him a number of times. But Jim was really one of the very early pioneers in devices for the blind. I'm talking about meters, making meters where you would hear a tone and the tone would change when you moved the dial to the right meter reading. You've probably seen those. I think Jim was involved in some of that.
AFB did a lot of that work back then too, to build those kinds of things.
So I remember, I met Jim Swayle. Emerson Foulke was another one. I met Emerson probably later. I wasn't working for Tim anymore but I remember Emerson, Tim Cranmer and I, Larry Israel were on a panel at the university, I think it was the University of Kentucky, of Armstrong Steel or one of the aluminum companies, Alcoa, or something like that, they had a contest for students to come up with devices for the blind and I was asked to be on this panel with Tim and Larry and Emerson Folk and a few others. That's how I met Emerson. He was quite a character too.
It's a shame you can't interview Emerson because he's quite the person, quite a character.
Tony Candela: How did you come to be asked to be on that panel?
Deane Blazie: I'm sure, I don't remember but I'm sure it was through Tim. They were asking Tim and Emerson who else might we have on this panel and I'm sure Tim recommended me.
Tony Candela: Had you gotten involved at all in blindness products or development by that point?
Deane Blazie: Yeah. My involvement was...Actually I was still in high school. No I wasn't, I was working at the time. It would have been like 1970. I was helping Tim come up with a way to make a page marker for cassette tapes and tape recorders. You know what a page marker is. Well Tim wanted a way to generate like a 40 Hz tone on a tape. You couldn't hear it when it was being heard at normal speed but when you put it in rewind or fast forward it would make a loud beep. Page marker. Push a button, it would mark a page for about three seconds and that was it.
I came up with a way to make those pretty inexpensively so I sent Tim one. He evaluated it and said it was good and he needed five more. So I started building these in the basement of my house and selling them and the word got out that I was making them, so I probably sold forty or fifty of those through the years.
Tony Candela: So all us cassette users who fast-forward and rewind and hear what we now call "the beep tone" have Deane Blazie to thank for that.
Deane Blazie: I wouldn't say that I came up with the idea but I made some of them. I don't know, in fact, who had the idea, whether it really was Tim or whether somebody else had the idea and mentioned it to him and we built them, but I think we made some of the first ones that were actually in use on recording stuff.
Tony Candela: Would you say that was the first blindness product that you in this case in combination with Tim Cranmer, developed?
Deane Blazie: We worked on some other things before that. I'll let you decide if those qualify but one was a thing called Say When and it's a little probe that you hang over your coffee cup and when you fill your coffee cup it would make a tone, beep at you.
Tim and I broke a bunch of circuits to try and make it work and in fact we settled on a particular reflex oscillator and that worked pretty well. Tim made a bunch of those. I didn't actually make them. Tim made them.
But I do remember my father was a tool and dye maker also by trade and Tim asked him to make a mold so that he could mold these two stainless steel wires into a probe that you could hang over the cup, in this plastic stuff. So Tim took some dental resin, resin that they used to make dental plates, he took that resin, poured it into this mold my dad made, stuck in two wires, arranged them, and after a few hours, a few minutes, this resin would form up and it would make a nice little probe, which had wires already molded into it and all that.
So I don't know how many of those Tim made, but he published the articles in the Braille Technical Press, do you remember that? Well if you ever get a chance, try to look up Braille Technical Press and read some of the back issues. Bill Gerrey from Smith-Kettelwell, I don't know if he still publishes it but Bill can tell you the history of that. It was just a great, great magazine.
I remember reading some of those with Tim. Tim used to sit there reading the Braille, The Braille Technical Press on how to build the flip-flop that we worked on. And he would tell me: connect the base of Q1 to a resistor, one end of the resistor. The other end of the resistor would go to ground. This is a 2K resistor.
So I would sit there and draw this circuit on a piece of paper while he read to me the blindness version of it. About how the circuit should be wired up. And believe it or not, you learn a lot from that translation because you learn how other people can picture objects or how they envision or mentally process pictures, how it can be done. It's pretty amazing.
I just learned a lot about blindness too from Tim. Watching him maneuver around the house, feeling doorway edges as you go in. Just the little minutiae of being blind and how helpful it is to a sighted person in life too. When you're walking around at night you can get around, you do these little things and you think nothing of it because you saw somebody else do it.
Tony Candela: I am reminded of something that needs to be said, which is that among all of the pioneers of the assistive technology industry for blind and visually impaired people, you are among a handful of folks who are normally sighted yourself. Yes?
Deane Blazie: Yes.
Tony Candela: Who have worked in a product line that is so intimate to the experience of blindness that one would think that it would take a blind person to be able to develop the technologies that really, really address how a blind person exists in the world, how they experience the world so closely.
And we'll get to how you started to develop some of the blind products you are more famous for, the ones that have your name attached to them. But I'm curious if you have some speculation as to what made you take to blind people as well as it seems like you did.
For example, when you first met Tim Cranmer, how did you feel about being around a blind person?
Deane Blazie: That's a good question. I have to really think back.
I remember when I first met him, I didn't know how to act or what to do but I didn't really think a lot about it. I was introduced to him by a friend of mine and my friend told me what an amazing guy Tim was. How he knew that I don't know because he didn't know Tim very well. It was my brother-in-law, Ben.
When we had the ham radio club meeting, I listened to Tim and he did most of the talking that night, to organize the club, and you could tell her was a very intelligent, just a normal guy. I was more taken by just watching how he did things and how different he did things than a sighted person, I don't remember that much, but I don't remember being taken back by that he was blind or feeling strange around him. Maybe I was, and just don't remember it. It's hard to tell.
Because I was young, I was fifteen or sixteen years old when I started working with Tim, I didn't have these preconceived notions about blindness either, so I just took it as it came and watched him and learned from him. I was always amazed at how intelligent he was. He was a true genius. He's a very, very smart man, in just about every way.
We discussed philosophy, we discussed calculus, algebra, mathematics, chemistry, physics, electronics. And he knew all this stuff. And I don't know if you know but Tim only went through the sixth or seventh grade, fifth or sixth grade, formal education wise. He quit school at that age.
Went to his dad and said, "Dad, I'd like to quit school." Here was a fifth or sixth grader. And his dad said, "Well Tim, if that's what you think you ought to do, then that's what you ought to do."
Tim's dad was an amazing fellow, apparently. I didn't know much about him but Tim did mention a few stories that I felt were pretty telling about him. When Tim went blind, totally blind, his dad said, "Son, I've never raised a blind kid so I don't know anything about it so you're going to tell me what you need and how to do it. We'll just have to work this out." Very open minded fellow. Kind of like Tim. I thought that probably contributed to Tim's free-spirited nature, getting things done.
Back to the original question. I just remember observing Tim a lot. I remember telling stories to my mother and dad about Tim, but I never remember feeling funny around him.
Tony Candela: And we might speculate but unless you know for sure, your own experience with having problems in the classroom might have sensitized you a little bit to what it's like for others who have to do things in a different way.
(End of Part 1 of 5)