Legends and Pioneers of Blindness Assistive Technology
St. Petersburg, FL
April 30, 2004
Introduction to Interview with Ted Henter
Tony Candela: Ted Henter, in his younger days, never would have believed that some day he would be blind. He was a surfer, a championship motorcycle racer, an engineer who didn't always like to work and someone who was finding his way in the world and making his way to the very top of the motorcycle racing industry. But a car accident took his sight.
Ted received some initial training in how to use a talking terminal from Deane Blazie and Maryland Computer Services, who later hired him to represent that product. Then Ted struck out on his own and with a silent partner, Bill Joyce, formed the company Henter-Joyce, which along with Deane Blazie's company eventually folded into Freedom Scientific.
In the interim, in the 1980s and 1990s, Ted Henter made history. He invented the speech software package, JAWS, Job Access With Speech, by far the most widely disseminated and best-known synthetic speech software package on the market.
In fact, some would argue that JAWS has become generic for speech software, although makers of other software packages might argue with that.
After Ted developed JAWS, the Windows revolution came upon us and undaunted, Ted and his team of very skillful engineers continued to manufacture the speech software, modified it, rebuilt it so that it would function with the Windows operating system and to the relief of many blind people in this country, talking computers continue to work but now in a Windows environment. Using the graphical user interface for people without vision was made possible largely through the work of Ted Henter.
Born and raised in the Panama Canal Zone, Ted has lived a wonderful and adventurous life. He's still an active athlete. He loves to water ski. I'm sure you'll find his story as fascinating as I did.
Ted continues to work. We interviewed in his home office in St. Petersburg, Florida, which is also the headquarters of his newest company (which he runs with his daughter Emley) called Henter Math.
Ted's attention is now turned toward making sure that visually impaired children and youth have the best chance they can to get a good education in mathematics and the sciences, in order to enter careers that have been up until now, out of reach for many of them. With the Virtual Pencil they will be able to handle all sorts of mathematical formulas from the most simple of algebraic equations, to eventually calculus and beyond.
(Beginning of Interview)
Tony Candela: Ted, thank you very much for agreeing to do this oral history interview with me. We're sitting in your lovely home in St. Petersburg, Florida. I've met your wife, Mel, and I've met your daughter, Emley.
Tell me about your family and then I'll ask you to tell me what you're doing these days. But tell me a bit about your family.
Ted Henter: Well, Mel is my high school girlfriend and we dated for about seven or eight years and got married when we were 25. And that was 28 years ago.
Along the way we've had three girls, 23, 21 and 12. Emley, Elizabeth, and Amber. The two older girls are in college. Emley is actually working for Henter Math as well. And Amber is in the 6th grade and is competitive at horse shows. Her and Mel do a lot of horse shows. Mel also rides horses and does shows. And Emley rides too and does shows. But Amber, her goal is to go to the Olympics as a hunter-jumper.
So we're pretty busy with those kinds of activities.
Tony Candela: So she'll be a Henter Hunter. [Laughter]
Ted Henter: When the older girls were growing up we did a lot of water skiing, because we've always been into boats and live near the water. So all three girls are pretty good water skiers. We've done some snow skiing. Elizabeth has a black belt in karate and Emley was a cheerleader in high school. And Elizabeth is currently on the basketball team at Milligan College, which is a small christian school up in Johnson City, Tennessee. She's in her third year there.
Emley has about three years of college also, but has taken time out to work and doing a little bit of each, actually.
Tony Candela: What is she studying?
Ted Henter: Marketing. Marketing and Business Administration.
Tony Candela: Excellent.
And you mentioned Emley working with you at Henter Math. Henter Math is your newest venture. It's what you're doing now. Can you tell us a bit about Henter Math?
Ted Henter: Yup. Back in the later '90s I was helping Emley with her algebra homework in junior high school and I could see the problem in my head, but I couldn't communicate to her what it looked like. I couldn't write it down.
And I realized for the first time how difficult math is for someone who's blind or someone who can't operate a pencil or someone who's motor impaired or maybe learning disabled.
Cause I have a college degree in engineering, but I got it when I was sighted. I wasn't blind till I was 27 years old.
So I got this idea for doing math on the computer and applied for a patent on it and I was working on it a little bit at Henter-Joyce, before we sold to Freedom Scientific. But we were pretty busy with JAWS in those days. We were very busy. And I couldn't get enough people at the company interested in doing the math project.
So when I left Freedom Scientific, a few years ago, I bought the rights to this product from the company. Because Freedom Scientific owned it once they bought Henter-Joyce, because Henter-Joyce owned the rights to the product.
But I got it back from 'em, all along with the intention of doing this. I was going to do it at Freedom Scientific, but it didn't work out there. They were also too busy to take on a new project. So we started this company in January of 2002. We hired Jeff Diddle, who's an experienced programmer and a JAWS user. So he's our Chief Technical Officer and does all the programming, at least the great majority of it. And we're developing math software.
We currently have a product that does arithmetic and fractions, so a blind person or someone who's motor impaired or learning disabled, can use our software to do these types of problems: arithmetic or fractions, work through the problem, print it out, hand it in. emboss it to review in class later or whatever. There's a lot of benefits to it, which I'll go into if we have the time.
And at this point in time, the spring of '04, we have a version that does algebra, which we're about to release for beta testing. We hope to have that on the market by the end of the summer.
And actually, that's just the start. Cause math is such a huge subject. We'll be moving on from here to do the higher levels of math like trigonometry and calculus and then into other areas of engineering and science like physics, chemistry, engineering. All those high school and college things that require equations and solving equations.
Tony Candela: And it's done with people at a keyboard, at a computer. The math pencil is not a real pencil. It's a virtual pencil.
Ted Henter: It's a virtual pencil. That's the name of it.
Yeah, if you can use a keyboard or you can't use a keyboard you use alternative input devices to operate the computer. And let's say if you're blind, the teacher, a sighted teacher, can create the problems, print them out for the sighted kids in class, e-mail them, or hand them out on disks for the blind kid or kids. The blind student can sit there in class or in the computer lab and work through the problems, in real time, about the same time the other kids do. And then hand them back in. E-mail them or on disk, or whatever.
Or print them out so the teacher can see them. No special skill involved as far as braille goes. If the kid, if the blind student wants to use braille, then if you have a braille display on the computer, he can use that.
Of course you can emboss it, so you can look it over in class. But the idea is, however you operate the computer, you can do the math on the computer and it saves a lot of time in the classroom and you don't have to have the translation from Braille and back. There's a lot of advantages.
Plus, you can do it at home. You can download the problems or the tests from the internet or get them in e-mail. There's Tutor Mode and Test Mode. A lot of advantages of doing it this way. I think it's analogous to 20 years ago people were still using a fountain pen or a typewriter to write letters. Nobody does that anymore. So there's a lot of advantages to using the computer.
Tony Candela: This will open up doors. Kids who know they have the tool, may have had the power in the past but not tried, will now try. Because they know they have the tool.
Ted Henter: Exactly.
So many blind kids, and I'm sure kids with other disabilities, they kind of hit the wall when they get out of elementary school and into high school or junior high. You get to algebra and then you realize, "I've got to change my major, because it's so difficult to do math and science, if you can't see."
The materials just aren't there. Even when they publish math and science, it's not accessible. Now it's becoming accessible thanks to things like Math Type, Math ML, and the screen readers are stepping up.
But what our product will do, Virtual Pencil, I hope, is to smooth the way so that kids can stay with what they're interested in, with math and science, have a reasonable experience in high school, open up a lot of opportunities and different choices in their college career and then of course in their careers themselves, their vocational career. We hope that this product, and others like it, will just open up a whole bunch of different opportunities for disabled kids.
Tony Candela: Your approach has always been, correct me if I'm wrong, one of enabling blind people to operate in the mainstream. The alternative philosophy would be (always to operate in the mainstream) but the technologies being more proprietary or more stand alone and more blindness oriented per se.
But your approach with what you have and your companies have developed through the years has always been to stay as close to the mainstream as possible. Is that a fair assessment?
Ted Henter: Yeah, I think so.
See when I was blinded in a car accident, of course it happened real quick and I had absolutely no experience with blindness or blind friends or anything. So I was there, I was a young guy about 27 years old. I had a college degree. What I wanted more than anything was to get a job.
Once I gave up on the idea of recovering my eyesight, the next best thing was to get a job. And that's always been my focus, is developing products like JAWS, that people can use on the job.
Of course when I got my first job, I went to work in an office as a programmer, cause I had to go back to school to learn how to be a programmer. I got my first job as a programmer. I had to use the same software that the other people were using. It's pretty obvious that that's what you want access to is the same software everybody else is using.
So that's what I always thought was very important so that a blind person can fit right in with everybody else in the office. And that usually means everybody else is sighted.
Tony Candela: Your experience then was from the point of view of well first, I guess, going to college as someone who now had no eyesight and then functioning on the job. Hence the name Job Access with Speech. You were job oriented.
Ted Henter: In those days too, that was the main focus. Beside my own experience, wanting to be able to function with "regular" software. That was also the big push to get jobs for blind people and that's where the money was. There was money available to buy technology. So that's just always been the focus.
It's not until recently that I began to see now there's a real problem with education as well. So I'm learning about that.
But you mentioned job access with speech. There's an interesting story there, Tony. As long as we're on the history part.
Jack Gilson, who's an old friend of mine and lots of other people in this field. It was in Atlanta. He and I were driving along one day in Georgia, somewhere, and this was when we were first developing JAWS. We didn't have a name for it yet. And at that point in time, it must have been '87, 1987 or maybe early '88, there was a product on the market called Flipper, which was a DOS screen reader.
And so we were just goofing around and the movie, Jaws, was big then. So I said, "Hey, how about Jaws, eats up Flipper." So we laughed and then shortly thereafter I figured out it could stand for "Job Access With Speech."
But nobody liked that name at first. When I told people about the name, nobody liked it. They thought it was a dumb name. It took about three or four weeks and it just kept growing on me and I decided, "That's a really good name, so we're going to go with this."
But it was Jack Gilson and I, goofing around that came up with it.
Tony Candela: And so there is a Florida connection here, obviously. JAWS I believe took place in Florida. You were in Florida, I guess, at that time.
Ted Henter: Originally, it was up in New York. The movie. Montauk Point or something up in New York. But I believe they've had some sequels, in the Bahamas and things like that.
Tony Candela: Well, I stand corrected but I'm glad the acronym followed the name. Usually people force these things. That's funny. It's a great story.
Ted Henter: It's one of those things that's happened and I hope we can get into this as we talk. It's one of those things that has happened to me throughout my career that are just positive things that just happened. We didn't plan it. We didn't work at it. It just happened. There's been a lot of things like that in my career so I've had a very blessed life, in that sense, that good things have happened. A few bad things too, but mostly good. And even at that point in time I don't realize how good they are but down the road you can see. This was a good thing that happened and this caused this and then we did this. And it ended up to be really good stuff.
Tony Candela: Being able to notice it while it's happening and going with it is of course very important, too.
Ted Henter: [Agrees]
Tony Candela: Ted, let's go back in time and work our way forward a little bit. I'll get you to tell us a whole bunch of inspiring stories as we go along. We'll talk about how happenstance plays into things and as you see a good thing happening, realizing it and going with it.
Let's talk about your parents. What are their names and where are they from originally?
Ted Henter: My father's named Ted and he was born and raised in the Panama Canal Zone, as I was. Cause my grandfather came over from Hungary at the turn of the century to dig the Panama Canal. He operated a steam shovel and was a mechanic and did repairs down there and lived there all his life.
So my dad was born and raised there from 1910 to 1971, when he moved to the States.
My mom is named Emley. That's the name of my daughter. And her background is from England. She was born and raised in New Jersey. Well, born in New Jersey. She moved to the Panama Canal Zone when she was very young, about 2 years old.
So both mom and dad were raised in Panama and so were my wife and I.
Tony Candela: How did your mom end up moving to the Panama Canal Zone?
Ted Henter: Back then, like 1914, there was a war going on and they were hiring people like crazy in Panama, at that point to finish up the Canal and maintain it. So my mom's father went down there to work. There was a lot of Americans being hired to go down there. The skilled workers, the tradesmen and what not. And so that's how he got down there. A lot of people were hired from the States to go there.
Because in Panama, you know, it was a province of Columbia. There was very little civilization there at the turn of the century. And the Americans went in there and put in a sewage system, an electrical system and built the buildings, and pretty much brought civilization to that country. I've been told then it was just a swampy, filthy, dirty spot, in between North America and South America, full of diseases and illnesses.
There was a lot going on down there at the turn of the century, and the first two decades. Building up the country and cleaning up the countryside and then curing malaria and yellow fever. That's where they discovered, between there and Cuba they discovered that mosquitoes carried malaria and yellow fever and they eradicated the mosquitoes, or at least the type that carried those diseases. A big project.
Tony Candela: And then somewhere along the way, your dad met your mom.
Ted Henter: Yeah, I forget what it was. I think it was in school. My dad was two years older than she was and they got married in 1936, when dad was about 25. Dad was 25.
I'm an only child. I was born in 1950. But I had a lot of cousins. Born in 1950, in the Canal Zone, Panama Canal Zone. Born and raised down there. And that was like a part of the U.S.
Growing up, I didn't realize I was in a foreign country cause it takes awhile before you figure out where you are geographically. But everybody spoke English. It was mostly Americans. We had our own schools and courts and restaurants and commissaries so there was very little exposure to Panama, until I got to be late teens and starting venturing out into the country and going surfing and things like that.
Tony Candela: So as a child, your world was somewhat circumscribed by the Americanization that was going on.
Ted Henter: Yeah, but very rural. Even though it was like a piece of America down there, it was small town America. A lot of small towns. You could walk to school, ride your bike to school. Very safe and secure. Almost no crime.
A lot of places were, back in the fifties and sixties. But it was great. But also, there was so much jungle and wilderness around us that we were always out in the jungle, going on hikes. I was in the Boy Scouts. Camping trips. Going water skiing. Going surfing.
We'd go over to the beach, like 60 miles away, even though we lived right on the water. The surfing beaches were 60 miles away. We'd go up there for the weekend. Leave high school on a Friday afternoon, don't come back home till Sunday night. Sleep on the beach. It was great. Terrific way to live.
Tony Candela: And your teen years for you were early to mid '60s. The later '60s. And we'll come back and talk more about that. Those were interesting times, in general.
Do you think, looking back on it now, that your world was sheltered in any way or in some ways you were out of the mainstream?
Ted Henter: Yeah. Out of the mainstream. Like we had no interest in professional sports, for example. Very few of my friends grew up wanting to be like a baseball player, a football player, that sort of thing.
My friends were all focused on surfing, but then later on I got into motorcycle racing cause we had a lot of folks doing motorcycle racing down there. And riding in the woods and stuff like that.
It's a lot different than growing up here, from what I see now. Of course now is a lot later in time. Things may have been the same in a small U.S. town, back in the '60s.
Tony Candela: I'm imaging how the land and the terrain was. How does motorcycle racing flourish down there? Are there lots of places to ride?
Ted Henter: Yeah, there's a lot of places to ride. There's bare, undeveloped jungle, which is tough to ride through but you can do it. There is some plains. And there was a lot of land that was cultivated. Not for farming but the trees had been cut down and made nice landscapes. A lot of the area, at either end of the Canal, is man made. It was just a big old swamp and when they dug the Canal they had to remove a lot of dirt, for one thing. And what they did with it was dump it in the ocean and built up the land.
So where I lived and went to school in my first 18 years, was all in this fill. And we didn't know it at the time because it looks like a real nice neighborhood. Trees and grass and everything. But back in 1900 it was just a swamp.
So there's a lot of this type of area around so we could stake out a spot and set up a racetrack for motor cross. And we had a club and went racing.
And also there was things like WWII airfields. There was probably six airfields that were built during WWII that were now abandoned. Just a piece of pavement way out in the middle of nowhere. And so we could have motorcycle races and car races on those types of things. It was really a cool place to be.
Tony Candela: How old were you when you got on your first bike?
Ted Henter: I think I was 15, my first motorcycle.
But I've been racing since I was about 6 years old. I got a go-cart when I was 6, Christmas Day, and a policeman down the road stopped me and took me home. When I was about 10 or 11 I was racing go-carts. I was reading all the magazines about cars and motorcycles. Everything I could get my hands on. So when I got my first motorcycle at the age of 15, I started taking off the muffler and things like that, so I could go faster. At least make it louder.
So I was always interested in that kind of stuff. And my dad was a natural. Even though he was a civil engineer, he just did a lot of mechanical work as a hobby. He was working on boats and jeeps and stuff like that. So we had a well-equipped shop under the house. So I learned how to use tools at an early age. I was always working on my bicycle. In the 4th grade I took apart the coaster brake on a bike and put it back together, which amazed my dad. Just stuff like that. I was always a natural mechanic.
So when I got my motorcycle I started working on them. And that's why, when I went on to college, I became a mechanical engineer. My goal was to design racing cars, but I got so involved in the racing, motorcycle racing myself, that I never got to that point in my career.
Tony Candela: Do you remember, or can you describe the first go-cart that you had, or any of the go-carts? How were they constructed?
Ted Henter: The first one we got from Sears. It was a very flimsy thing with a little motor on it, with a belt drive, very skinny tires. There was one round tube running from front to back with all the things bolted to that: a seat, a motor, and all that stuff. Very flimsy but very cheap and just great for just bopping in the backyard for us 6-year-olds.
But then as I progressed, the go-carts back then looked a lot like they do now: four wheels, motor in the back, gas tank in the front. They haven't changed much, as far as overall dimensions in just looking at them. But the technology in go-carts today is really amazing, like most things are.
Cause we did race, I raced back in the '60s. Just recently, my daughter Elizabeth was into go-cart racing. So we went racing from about '97, must have been about '95 to 2000. We raced go-carts here in the States, which is a much higher level, much more sophisticated equipment, a lot more competition.
Tony Candela: So this runs in the family?
Ted Henter: To a certain extent, yeah.
Elizabeth isn't racing now. She retired when she got out of high school. But she would love to go motorcycle racing. We did go to a motorcycle racing school in Atlanta, the Schwantz School. Kevin Schwantz who is a former world champion. You can go to a two-day school up there and learn how to road race. And that was terrific.
Because I raced at that same racetrack back in the '70s so when I was at the school last fall with my daughter Elizabeth and my friend Dan Moore, I got on the back of one of these bikes with one of the instructors and went around the racetrack at high speed. Up to 135 m.p.h. down the straightaway. It was quite a thrill. It was pretty scary too.
Tony Candela: Did you ever have any accidents on your go-cart or on your motorcycle?
Ted Henter: Plenty. Plenty of accidents.
Not so much on the go-cart. Go-carts, you don't fall off a go-cart like you do a motorcycle. They spin out and if you're not careful, you might hit something. So I didn't really get hurt on my go-cart but I've had about ten broken bones from my motorcycle. I cracked vertebrae in my neck when I crashed at Laguna Sega in California in '73. The same time I broke a collarbone, a wrist and an ankle.
I was out of action for awhile. I was in a body cast and all that stuff.
Prior to that, back in the '60s I had broken my left femur. So I was out of action. I missed a semester of high school, my junior year. So I had broken my other collarbone. I had broken my other wrist. I had broken my ankles three times. I had a couple of ribs, a couple of fingers.
Tony Candela: Did any of this make you think about stopping?
Ted Henter: Yeah. Oh, yeah. In my early twenties I demonstrated a lot of potential. I was on the pole at Daytona for one of the big races. I got a second at Taladega. This was what is called The International Expert Class. That's the highest category of road racing and so I was having some success but at that point in time, there was very little money involved in motorcycle racing.
Cause remember in the early '70s was the Oil Crisis, the first one. There wasn't a lot of money involved in recreational activities, recreational vehicle activities. So we were all struggling and not making a lot of money. But as I got older, I got a little bit smarter and I quit falling off my bike as much. I also got a little bit more timid, I think, for safety's sake and I started thinking about these injuries because the older you get, the slower you heal, the more it hurts, the more you think about it.
So, towards the end of my career, at the age of 27, I began to realize, you know, that time was running out. I've got to make this thing happen.
So I could definitely see the end was in sight. And that's why I went, I made up my mind to go into the World Championship that year, in '78. So I was actually an eighth place in the world championship by the time I was blinded.
Tony Candela: And that was over in Europe, if I remember.
Ted Henter: Yeah, in England.
Tony Candela: Were you always an athletic kid? Were you an athletic kid when you were growing up?
Ted Henter: No. I wouldn't claim that. I was always pretty active. I've been water skiing since I was five years old and I played Little League baseball and stuff like that but I was not a good baseball player, I did not play football or basketball. I wasn't good at that.
I went for the weird things, the different things. In fact, in 1962 or 3 I started surfing and that was a new thing back then.
So no, I wasn't really athletic and I wasn't good at those team sports, but I was a pretty good surfer and a pretty good water skier and then a pretty good motorcycle racer.
Tony Candela: What kind of skills do you have to have to be a good surfer?
Ted Henter: Balance is important and eye-hand coordination is important. You don't really use your hands but use your feet. But I think surfing is a lot like motorcycle racing, you have to be able to understand where you are on the wave, or where you're going to be in the next second or two or three, and where the wave is going to be.
And it's just like motorcycle racing. You look at a racetrack, you turn left, you turn right. It's not a big deal. But to find your way around the track quickly, you have to take the proper line so you have to position yourself in the right spot at each instant in time. And you have to anticipate when to break, when to put on the gas, cause you don't break when you get to the turn. If you're going 180 miles an hour, like you do at Daytona. You've got to start breaking way ahead of that.
You're positioning in your environment is so important in surfing and in racing. And your sense of speed, not only your position but where you are now but where you are going to be in two seconds from now.
Tony Candela: And for riding motorcycles, did you have to have a lot of upper body strength for that?
Ted Henter: No. Not really. Now in motocross it certainly does help but I wasn't a great motocross racer. My favorite and where I did the best was road racing. The real streamlined bikes, where you lean way over and drag your knees on the ground. You probably don't know what I'm talking about but people that can see have seen it on TV and seen pictures where the bikes lean way over and they have a streamlined shell on them and the rider can tuck behind the windshield. That was my favorite. They were the fast ones.
Because even back then, in the '70's, we were doing 180 m.p.h. In Daytona and Taladega, the big tracks.
But it wasn't upper body strength so much as endurance was important, of course. In a 200-mile race, it might take two hours, you're in a leather suit, and it's 105 degrees on the racetrack in the sun. So it can get to you.
Tony Candela: And you obviously went to school in the Panama Canal Zone. What types of schools were available?
Ted Henter: It was your typical elementary school and junior high, really. And then we had a junior college. And that was about it.
We had a very good public school education. A very good high school education. And I had a natural affinity for math and science, so I took some of those courses, advanced courses in high school. It was just a wonderful place to grow up. A great childhood.
Tony Candela: Were you a good student, an attentive student?
Ted Henter: Yeah, I was. I took school very seriously. I think, being an only child, my mom and dad were both "professionals," they'd always raised me with a sense that it was important to do good in school, to be respectful to your teachers, to succeed at whatever, or at least try to succeed, at whatever you're involved in. And whether you like it or not, you're going to college. I got that from mom and dad.
I definitely paid attention in school. I was well behaved, respectful and I got good grades. I got a B average in high school. Not a straight A student. Cause I was also not totally focused, exclusively on school. I was involved in the after school activities like surfing and riding motorcycles and hanging around with girls and stuff like that.
Tony Candela: Your dad was an engineer. Did he have a college degree?
Ted Henter: No. Not a degree. He had some college but he did have an engineering license. He was a member of the professional engineers, but no actual degree. Cause in his day, back in the 20s and 30s when he went to college, it wasn't such a big deal then. So no, he didn't have a formal degree.
Tony Candela: How about your mom? What was her education?
Ted Henter: I don't think she had any formal education beyond high school.
Tony Candela: And she worked as a professional.
Ted Henter: As a legal secretary and an office administrator, things like that.
Tony Candela: So when you came home from school, were they generally there, or not there, in your younger days?
Ted Henter: In my younger days, yeah. Mom was there and dad would get out of work about 4:00 in the afternoon and he would be home. And we'd always be tinkering on something under the house. I still say basement, because it wasn't underground. Most of the houses were built off the ground. So under the house was just an open area where you could have like a hobby shop. So dad was always tinkering on the boat or the outboard motor or the Jeep, we had a Jeep. So I frequently helped him or he would help me with my bicycle and stuff like that.
So I had a lot of parental involvement.
Tony Candela: And when did they make you do your homework?
Ted Henter: After dinner, in the evenings.
Panama gets dark at 6:00 every day, year round. And we would eat at 5:30 in the afternoon, no matter what. That was dinnertime.
So after school, you got to go out and play but you had to be home at 5:30 to eat and then do homework.
Tony Candela: What time did you go to bed at night, when you were young?
Ted Henter: Oh gosh, I couldn't remember, but it wasn't very late. I'm sure of that.
Tony Candela: Did you watch a lot of TV?
Ted Henter: No. There really was no TV. In the 60s we had a television in the house but there was nothing on. There was the Armed Forces radio and television service and I don't think it even came on until about 6:00 at night and then we'd get five minutes of the news, which I never watched.
The neatest thing about TV in the Canal Zone, that's what we called it, the Canal Zone, was the Andy Griffith show. That came on once a week and that was about it. So I spent one hour a week, maybe, watching TV.
Tony Candela: When you started becoming aware of world events...let's say most kids start to think about these things in their teen years, the Vietnam War was just beginning. The Cold War was on for awhile. There were pressures in the world that if you were around television a lot, you'd see manifestations of them. Do you recall those years being aware of what was going on in the rest of the world?
Ted Henter: Yeah. We were quite aware of the Russians in the Cold War because we always had those bomb drills, you know. The Air Raid drills when you had to get under your desk, don't get near the windows. We had that.
Plus, in the Panama Canal Zone, there was about 10,000 civilians, including kids, families. And there was about 50,000 U.S. military. There was about ten military bases. So we were surrounded by the military.
In fact, the U-2 spy plane would fly right over our high school, in the early 60s. I guess it was the mid-60s, when I was in high school. I remember sitting there, you know, in the afternoons, kind of daydreaming, looking out the window and "shoosh!" right over the high school comes the U-2 landing but the air strip was maybe two miles away. If you got up early enough in the morning you could see the U-2 take off cause those things take off real quick.
And in later years it was the SR-71, the Blackbird. See we were surrounded by the military and then, of course, our older friends were getting drafted and we didn't want that. And there was jungle training there. My dad was involved setting up the jungle training course for the U.S. military. Each year they would have military maneuvers, where they'd fly like a hundred planes with paratroopers down from the bases in the U.S. and they would parachute out.
So we drove up into what we call the interior of Panama, which is like 60, 70 miles out of the city, up where we would surf. We'd watch the paratroopers come in and paratroop out and all that stuff.
We were quite aware of what was going on.
Tony Candela: It must have been an amazing sight. All these little dots in the sky? Is that what it looked like?
Ted Henter: Fantastic.
And sometimes, as I recall, there would be maybe a thousand paratroopers in the air at one time. Just amazing. Very impressive too.
Tony Candela: And is that how they looked? Do they start out looking like barely perceptible things up there and slowly come into view? How do you remember it looking?
Ted Henter: These drops were at fairly low altitude so you could pretty clearly see the planes. And as soon as the guys would jump out of the plane, the chute would be full. So they were bigger than dots but many times the guy up higher would be hidden by a guy down lower. You couldn't see them all that well. It was just packed, the sky would be full of parachutes. Pretty amazing.
Tony Candela: Do you remember any military accidents happening while you were growing up? Anything unpredictable or dangerous, because of all that military around you?
Ted Henter: No. Nothing like that. Because if you get 50,000 U.S. troops, you got 40,000 wild and crazy young men, so there was always car accidents, motorcycle accidents, that kind of stuff. Fights. But I can't think of any, what you call, military accidents. I'm sure there were. They were happening all the time but not in view, so to speak.
Tony Candela: So your childhood and teen years doesn't have explosions and bombs and things like that as part of your memories?
Ted Henter: No, no, no. But there was also a lot of firing ranges around where you could go out and watch them shoot the big cannons and all that sort of stuff. So we experienced all kinds of stuff like that, but as spectators.
Tony Candela: I see. Was there a time along the way in your growing up years where you had a sense of what you might do for a career? Did you decide early on what you might do? Become an engineer?
Ted Henter: Yeah I did. In the mid-60s I thought I wanted to be an airline pilot, but as I got more and more into motorcycle racing, I decided I wanted to be a race car designer. And Formula 1 racing was my favorite. That's the World Championship for cars. And that's like the top level of car racing.
So, it was always my goal to get an engineering degree and go to England and build race cars, design race cars.
Tony Candela: Why England?
Ted Henter: That's where it's done. Even today, I think it's safe to say, all the Formula 1 teams, and that includes Ferrari, which is an Italian team, and Vernault, which is a French team, Toyota, which is a Japanese team. The cars are actually built in England. It's like a cottage industry and that's where all the experts have migrated to and all the skilled craftsmen and designers.
Cause these are very specialized automobiles.
Tony Candela: The image of the shapes of cars and the aerodynamics and the engines on the inside, everything I guess is part of what you aspired to be involved with.
Ted Henter: Yes. But you know I went through a typical four-year college degree, bachelors, so you don't specialize at all there. You've just got to get the basics out of the way.
And at the time I was also quite involved with motorcycle racing, while I was going to college and then after college so I never really got into the real serious race car design stuff.
Tony Candela: Where did you go to college?
Ted Henter: I did my last two and a half years at University of Florida in Gainesville. My first year I did in Inglewood, Northrop Institute of Technology which is in Inglewood, California. Part of L.A. It's right by the L.A. airport. It's a small, private school where they teach airplane mechanics and a little bit of engineering. I didn't know it at the time but it was a mistake to go there for me.
So I spent a year there and then I went back to the Canal Zone and did a year of junior college and then I went to the University of Florida.
Well, the school in California was a very small school. Most of the people there were getting a license to be aircraft mechanics. So there was not a lot of engineering and not a lot of the kind of stuff I was interested in.
Tony Candela: And Northrop is famous for making airplane engines, the Northrop engine is well known.
Ted Henter: Yeah.
Tony Candela: So you realized that becoming a mechanic was not your aspiration. Becoming a true engineer was your aspiration.
Ted Henter: Right.
Tony Candela: You would have graduated high school, let's just guess, 1966, '67.
Ted Henter: '69.
Tony Candela: '69. And you would have turned draft age, right around this time, and for sure, we were in the absolute height of the Vietnam war, right at this time.
So were you afraid of getting drafted?
Ted Henter: Yeah, that was a concern. In those days it was nuts. It was never my desire to go into the military. It wasn't part of the family. Now I'm sorry that I missed that experience, because some of my friends have done it. It was an excellent experience and I'm sorry that I didn't, wasn't more pro active in getting involved with the military.
Of course the Vietnam War was pretty unpopular and in high school I had a high school deferment. When I went to college, I had the college deferment, for a while.
I think it was '69 or '70 when they came out with the lottery for the draft, so I got a high lottery number and so I didn't get drafted. So I was able to continue my college career and then after that, I got out of college in '74, the war was over, pretty much.
Yeah, I missed the Vietnam War and I wished I had had some of those experiences. Of course it was quite dangerous and all those types of things, but hindsight is always different.
Tony Candela: I guess it's safe to say that you were and still are a daredevil. Looking back on it, you can still say that you might have been willing to take that risk.
Ted Henter: Yeah. And I think I would have been really good at this. A fighter airplane or a helicopter gun ship or something like that.
One of my good friends was a helicopter gunship pilot and he's got some great stories. But it's not that it's fun to go over and kill people, but it's a patriotic thing to do, to be in the military and I'm quite proud of the fellows that are over there fighting the war now and I pray for them every day.
Even though there's, well, they have a job to do and they're doing it very well. Unfortunately, some of them aren't coming back alive. That's the down side.
And some of my friends, from the 60s, didn't come back either. And some of them came back with lifelong injuries. My friend Donnie Dunne, who became a friend just ten years ago, after the war and after his injuries, he's blind and a double amputee. Great guy. He did tech support for us on JAWS. Now he's doing tech support for us on Virtual Pencil. Really a great guy but he was injured in Vietnam. And I have other friends too that have not recovered from their injuries.
But I was fortunate in that respect, that I did not get drafted. On the other hand, I'm missing something because I didn't go, which I regret.
Tony Candela: Do you think you realized this at the time?
Ted Henter: No, absolutely not. Absolutely not.
Tony Candela: You didn't spend time consciously aware of compensating for not having gone. You weren't thinking in those terms back then?
Ted Henter: No. I was totally focused on racing, on my career designing race cars. But in the meantime I was racing motorcycles and I had a career going there. So I was very focused on that and going in the military was just the last thing I wanted to do.
And the people I was around, we were all thinking pretty much the same way. Cause we did not grow up with the military, in a military family or with friends in the military.
Even my dad, back in WWII, working down in Panama, the Panama Canal was such an important thing to have for the U.S. military, to get the ships from the Atlantic to the Pacific and vice versa. The people down there weren't even allowed to go in the War. Some of them like my dad. His job was too important in 1941, '42, his job on the Canal was just too important. They couldn't let him go in the military. We just didn't have that heritage in our family.
Tony Candela: When do you recall contacting your first computer or computer-like device?
Ted Henter: It was my first year at college in 1969. Up there at Northrop Institute of Technology we had a computer there. We were doing FORTRAN. Of course, being an engineering school, that's what you do. So that was my first experience with computers.
Totally totally different from what it's like today.
Tony Candela: What were they like?
Ted Henter: I don't recall ever seeing the computer. It was somewhere else. It was on campus, but it was in this room or that room; I don't think I actually ever saw the computer. And we had punch cards. So you had a little machine like a typewriter, and you stick these cards in it, and you would write your program and it would punch holes in the card. And when you had enough of these cards to make a stack maybe a half inch high or maybe 5 inches high. They were bigger than playing cards. They were probably twice the size of playing cards. Then you had to keep them all in order, of course. Because then you stuck them in a card reader and it read them in order and that was the information that was your computer program.
Quite bizarre compared to these days. But that's the way it was done.
Tony Candela: Were you fascinated by the computer or doing computer work?
Ted Henter: No. To me it was just one more hassle I had to get a good grade in to keep on moving up in my college. It was just one of those things, like operating a slide rule, you know. Like learning calculus. "Oh, I've gotta do this." So I sat down and learned how to do it. But I had no clue how important it all was going to be someday.
Tony Candela: So the computer for you started out as just another one of the tools.
Ted Henter: Yep. Just something else you had to learn how to operate. I didn't grasp the significance of how important it would be, even if I became a race car designer. I didn't grasp all that. It was just, "This is what's in front of me now. This is what I've got to get through to get a passing grade."
In those days, I didn't think very far ahead. And I don't think very far ahead these days either. I just deal with what's obviously the problem right now.
Tony Candela: What do you think made it so hard, what made you not think ahead back then and maybe not think ahead too much now?
Ted Henter: I didn't spend a lot of time in those days sitting around thinking, "Well, gosh. What's life going to be like 10 years from now?" I was real busy living life as it was right then. I don't recall having any strategic planning sessions. Even today, even in my career in assistive technology, a lot of things just happened. I've had several strategic planning sessions, but after about 6 months, you kinda threw them away because it's just not working out the way you thought it was gonna.
Those things are important for business and you've gotta look ahead. Smarter guys than me have insisted that we look ahead. For business plans and stuff. So, I have been involved in that, but it's never been an interest of mine or something I've been particularly good at.
Tony Candela: The way the growth of technology has accelerated through the years, being able to move as the industry moves or as the needs emerged probably has held you in good stead.
Ted Henter: Yes. In assistive technology, it's not like...At Microsoft, they've got guys that sit there and say, "What are we going to need 5 years from now?" And they set a group of people aside and they start working on it. And they have other people who are taking care of today's problems, today's bugs and virus attacks and the tech support calls and stuff like that. But at Henter-Joyce and prior to that at Maryland Computer Services, the phone would ring and we'd have a customer on the line who had a problem right now that we had to solve. We didn't have time or resources to sit around and think, "Well, gee, what kind of product should we develop for the people 3 years from now?" Or 5 years from now or 10 years from now.
We were always faced with more problems than we could handle, more bugs than we could fix, more applications that wouldn't work with JAWS, more customers that needed help. We always had more of those than we could handle. So we never said, "OK. Let's take 20% of the development staff and get them working on the next generation. That's part of the problem. Well, we were very reactionary. Consequently, we focused on those problems and got them fixed. And that's one reason that JAWS is the most popular screen reader in the world today. Because we did jump on it as quickly as we could and focused on it. As opposed to, "Well, let's wait 6 months to fix that bug because we're working on the problems that are going to happen 5 years from now." No. It wasn't like that. We were always focused on the problems that we got today.
What really has influenced my computer career and JAWS careers, so to speak, is...I was a natural-born engineer or mechanic. I learned, I could figure out how to fix mechanical things, like engines and stuff. I could see how they work and understood a lot that kind of technology.
Also, in my racing career, I was a brash young hothead and pretty arrogant when I got started. Of course, after a few months in the hospital and things like that, I started to realize maybe there's people around who know more about this than I do. Maybe I should pay attention when they try to tell me. Because you get all kinds of free advice and the important thing is to figure out what's good and what's not good.
Being a motorcycle racer kind of humbled me so I began to learn, "Hey, I should pay attention to what other people are saying." There was a lot of good stuff there.
Being a natural-born mechanic or engineer helped me to figure out how to make things. So I think those two things are very important for when I got into business.
Tony Candela: Did you have trouble in college with your engineering studies? Did anything come hard to you?
Ted Henter: Nope. I was a good student. I focused. I listened well in class. I could see well. I could read well. I've always been a good reader because in the early days I read all the magazines about cars and stuff. I had no problems in college. I didn't get straight As. I got a 3.1 or 3.2 average. But I took all the hard engineering-type courses. Calculus, thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, and all this stuff I can't even remember now. College was relatively easy for me.
Like I said, at the time I was doing a lot of motorcycle racing also. So I was doing some traveling and missing classes and things like that. I was fortunate that I could get through school relatively easily.
Tony Candela: Was it difficult getting your first job out of college?
Ted Henter: No. That was pretty easy. I was racing motorcycles, so I didn't want a real job. But then, I wasn't eating real well either. So I had to get a job.
Actually, I learned quite a bit on that first job. I got a job as an "engineer" with a phosphate fertilizer company here in Florida#8212;CF Industries. I didn't have a lot to do. They wanted me to do a lot, but I didn't know how to do it. I didn't know exactly what they wanted and was kind of at a loss. Plus, I was focused on racing; that's all I really wanted to do. So I managed to waste a lot of time and still get paid for it. I look back on that and realize what a horrible employee I was. I was terrible. It was a big, big chemical plant. You'd go out in the plant, all outdoors. You'd get lost for hours. Nobody knew where you were, especially the boss. So I managed to waste a lot of time in there, never really learned much, never really produced much for the company. I look back on that as quite a learning experience. I also had a terrific boss, Wally Pots, who sort of understood what I was doing. He gave me a lot of leeway to kinda learn. I'm sure he hoped I would grow into something productive for the company. I never did.
After about 10 months, the racing season was starting again. I needed some time off. Of course, I wasn't supposed to get a week off until I'd been there a year, but he gave me a week off to go to Daytona and go racing. In the race, I crashed, broke my wrist, broke a collar bone, something like that. Anyway, I couldn't go back to work. I called him. He said, "All right. Come back when you can." So a few weeks later, I come back to work. I had a cast on my arm. By now him and his boss had figured out, "Hey, this guy Henter, he's just not cut out to be an engineer at a phosphate fertilizer plant. We've got to get rid of him. We don't want to fire him. Because then there's all kinds of problems. So, what we'll do is just give him some really unpleasant work to do." So that's what happened. I would have to work from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. in this plant, watching this conveyor, shutting it down every hour, tightening all the nuts and bolts, making sure it wasn't going to break. Because if it did break, the plant would get shut down for hours and mess things up big time. So, it was a big responsibility. I knew if I went to sleep, the conveyor would break. It was horrible; I hated it. After 2 weeks, I quit.
I went back to motorcycle racing and just didn't eat as well as I had been. I learned a lot at that plant about myself and about other employees.
Tony Candela: Around what year is this?
Ted Henter: Seventy-four, seventy-five.
Tony Candela: Then what happened?
Ted Henter: I went racing and was doing better, I got a sponsor, Audio Outlet in Savannah, Georgia. Roger Edmundson was the owner of the store and he loved racing. We became friends. So him and his store sponsored me in my racing.
I wasn't on a big budget, so I didn't live very well. But, I was doing what I loved doing; that was racing motorcycles.
Tony Candela: You were around 25 years old.
Ted Henter: Yeah. I got married about that time, too. In about '76. I got married. That put an extra strain on the budget, but by then I was actually doing pretty good racing and working at the hi-fi store that Roger owned. The good news is my wife had a job. Things were going pretty well.
Tony Candela: Tell us how you met Mel. Mel is Mary Elizabeth?
Ted Henter: Yes.
Tony Candela: How did you meet her? Where did you meet her?
Ted Henter: Growing up in the Canal Zone; she grew up there too. She was just one of those kids who was around. We actually met in elementary school. She went to the Catholic school; I went to the public school. So we didn't see a lot of each other. We had mutual friends. And, you know, she was around. Then, one day in '68, the start of the second semester of our junior year of high school, we ended up sitting right next to each other in home room. It was a home room, it was mechanical drawing with big desks. We actually sat at the same desk in home room. But I was only there for a week because I broke my femur a week after that and was out of school for the rest of the year. But she would come and visit me in the hospital and things like that. It was one of those fortunate situations where now she wasn't just a skinny little girl and I was interested in playing dodge ball. She wasn't a skinny little girl any more and I was interested in girls like her. So it worked out real good.
When I got out of the hospital, I actually went to work on a tuna boat that summer. Because that's what kids did back then is ship out, down in Panama. Tuna boats would come by and you could get a job on them for a couple weeks at a time. So I made some money, came back, and I happened to see her sister leaving the movies one night and I said, "Hey, how's Mel doing? Say hi to her for me," etc., etc. "Tell her I'll be at Timmy Lane's party. On Saturday." That was the start of our romance I guess. We met up at the party and things went on from there.
Tony Candela: You went to different colleges. Were you separated a lot during those years?
Ted Henter: Yeah, we were.
(End of Part 1 of 5)