Short of some miraculous visual prosthesis that can produce artificial sight, what blind people have traditionally sought (and, as often as not, invented for themselves) were devices that could enhance their ability to function in personal and vocational pursuits. Whether a self-threading needle, a carpenter's level equipped with an audible signal, a notched slide rule, or brailled playing cards, each such device has represented one more step toward equalization with the sighted.
If sales figures are any indication, there exists a genuine demand for all sorts of tools, homemaking equipment, medical instruments, timepieces, games, writing and drawing aids designed or adapted for use by blind persons. The 1972 aids and appliances catalog of the American Foundation for the Blind, which listed some 300 separate items, produced $564,000 worth of orders for 124,000 pieces of merchandise. Processing of this steadily burgeoning business, about 90 percent of it in the form of mail orders, has required the employment of as many as 18 staff members; it has also meant sizable annual deficit appropriations.
The origins of this unique accommodation service flowed out of the convergence of two separate streams. One was the sale and distribution of radios and braille watches and the processing of one-fare transportation applications—three forms of direct service for blind individuals begun in the Twenties. The second was the establishment, also in the Twenties, of the Foundation's experimental shop "for the improvement and elaboration of mechanical appliances for the blind," although this shop did not initially concentrate on homely appliances for individuals but on the heavy machinery that revolutionized braille printing and writing methods. The subsequent development of Talking Book records and playback machines preempted all of the Foundation's technical and engineering resources during the Twenties.
To cope with the demand for simpler devices during this period, the Foundation imported from England's National Institute for the Blind a full line of appliances, games and canes. That the Foundation should itself work on products of this kind was not lost sight of, but the machinery manufacturing projects did not level off until the early Forties, at which point wartime shortages of manpower and raw materials for consumer goods made for further delay.
At the same time, however, the war inspired intriguing vistas of wonders to come. "It is expected," the Foundation's 1942 annual report said, "that many of the inventions which have been made to advance the war effort will, when the conflict is over, be adaptable to the use of the blind in overcoming their handicaps."
Just how would such adaptations be accomplished? The annual report for the following year raised the hope that a research laboratory would be established to study possible uses for "wartime inventions now held secret … as soon as they are made public." As will be seen, most of the military secrets—radar, sonar, guided missiles, and the like—yielded few immediate practical results for blind people. What did open some prompt new opportunities were technologies related to the stepped-up industrial output of the war years. A blind woman in Buffalo was credited with the idea for a device that attached to a scale and produced an audible signal when the desired weight was reached. It was taken up by a commercial firm and found immediate application, not only in industrial plants employing blind people but in the Foundation itself, which used the audio scale to speed up the packaging of twenty million Talking Book needles. A blind Canadian invented a paper currency detector whose electric eye "read" denominations by means of buzzes. While this was apparently never produced commercially, the electric-eye idea was employed by the Foundation's engineers to devise a safety attachment for sewing machines used in workshops for the blind. The attachment brought the machine to an instant stop when an operator's hand moved too close to the needle; it also had a two-tone buzzer that alerted the operator when thread was broken or ran out.
By the beginning of 1945, enough of a start had been made on a $100,000 campaign to raise funds for a technical research laboratory to set up a "model shop" and assign two men to it. It was one of these men who soon grew into a role he seemed born to fill—that of "Mr. Fixit" for America's blind people. He was Charles G. ("Chick") Ritter, who made up for the absence of formal academic qualifications by a quick intelligence, a high degree of mechanical aptitude, a wide-ranging curiosity, and a set of deep-rooted convictions about the capacity of blind people to overcome their visual handicap.
Sandy-haired, open-faced, sturdily built, just approaching middle age, Ritter was not an ivory-tower type; he left theoretical speculations to others and devoted himself to tangible solutions that would prove of immediate use. He did not have far to look for his first blind clients. They were colleagues on the Foundation staff, they were friends and friends of friends, they were visitors who came to the Foundation office and blinded veterans Ritter went to see at Valley Forge and Old Farms. The first thing one of these people asked about was a slide rule; Ritter worked out an embossed version that enabled a blind engineer to hold on to his job. Someone else needed a tactile micrometer; it materialized in due course. For the men in the military hospitals, a spill-proof, magnetized checker set was designed. Some of the most useful devices were the simplest, such as a tape measure employing ordinary wire staples to mark off inches.
Ritter's "one problem at a time" approach led him to listen attentively to the housewife who wanted a meat roasting thermometer she could read with her fingers, to the gas station attendant who needed a tire pressure gauge he could follow by touch, to the physician who could check the blood pressure of his patients with a tactile sphygmomanometer. Most of these objects required relatively simple adaptations of commercial products and the making of such adaptations became the chief task of the model shop.
But not everything needed to be adapted. Once tuned in to the specific problems of blind people, Ritter began to seek out commercial products peculiarly suited to their use. Early models of the pressure cooker had visual gauges, but so many accidents occurred that one company switched to an audible signal. Ritter saw immediately that here was a brand that could be used safely by blind persons. He located a magnetized knife rack that eliminated the danger to fingers of fumbling through cutlery drawers and a new kind of egg beater that did away with messy splashing. There were other gadgets of this kind: a safety jar opener, a flameless cigarette lighter, a whole range of interval timers that anyone could mark with dots of glue for finger-reading.
How could the nation's blind people be informed of these useful aids to daily living? And how could they obtain them? A monthly column, "The Suggestion Box," began appearing in the Outlook in May 1946 and was soon regularly reprinted in the Ziegler Magazine and a number of local periodicals for blind readers. The matter of supply was handled through the same Foundation mail order service which had long dealt in watches and radios and now went on to secure these newer items from manufacturers at wholesale prices and resell them at cost. Bit by bit, blind people were acquiring a greatly expanded discount shopping service through which they could buy the things they needed at price savings.
By the end of its first year of operation the Technical Research Department was stocking and selling 45 items; a year later, the number had increased to 84, and a year after that, to 122. The initial mimeographed price list was now too bulky to handle, and an illustrated printed catalog was produced in 1948. Copies were sent on inquiry and were also distributed through displays at meetings of blind people and workers for the blind. It was not until some years later that a mailing list was built for the annual catalog; in 1972 the computerized list comprised close to 100,000 names for the inkprint edition and 5,000 for a separate braille edition.
One of the factors in Ritter's surehandedness in identifying objects that blind people could put to practical use grew out of an informal group he called the Technical Research Council. Blind people, he was convinced, were the only true experts on what would work for them, particularly with respect to devices in professional or technical specialties. Beginning with a core of blind engineers, teachers, and other professional people in the New York area who met informally at Foundation headquarters every Thursday evening, Ritter eventually developed a list of some five hundred technical specialists all over the country he could call on for consultation. Many of these had worked out devices or methodologies to solve problems in their own work, and such solutions proved useful to others struggling with comparable problems.
Although Ritter's frequent public appearances, in person and in print, gave him national prominence, he was not alone in developing the aids and appliances service. In the early days, Michael Gregory and Martin Sheridan, who ran the model shop, along with men like J.O. Kleber, John Breuel, and Manuel Powers, also contributed ideas for adaptations and new devices. At Ritter's right hand in expediting sales and demonstrations were two attractive blind women, Ruth Wartenberg and Helen Scherer, who also doubled as photographic models in illustrating the use of some of the devices.
For all his talents, Ritter was not a trained scientist and the Foundation still cherished hopes for major technological breakthroughs in the sensory realm. Out of the circle of Ritter's unofficial consultants emerged Clifford Martin Witcher, Ph.D., who joined the staff as a research engineer in November 1947. Witcher, a native of Atlanta, held a doctorate in physics from Columbia University, a B.S. from Georgia Institute of Technology, and a master's degree from Emory University.
Blind since the age of two, Cliff Witcher had attended regular elementary and high schools, a fact he credited for his proficiency in science. Schools for the blind, in those days, did not provide laboratory work for their students. Neither, for the most part, did public high schools, which routinely excused blind students from lab courses, but Witcher was allowed to take the same science classes as his fellow students. In his high school chemistry class he developed an auditory technique for measuring acids by setting up a group of "pitch pipes"—test tubes containing measured amounts of water, each of which gave off a different sound when blown across. When a particular quantity of acid was needed for an experiment, he would add it, drop by drop, to an empty test tube until the sound from blowing across the tube matched the sound from the "pitch pipe" with the desired amount.
At Columbia, Witcher worked under the Nobel laureate physicist, I.I. Rabi; his performance there resulted in a permanent open door for blind students in Columbia's science laboratories. This was by no means a common practice; one of the earliest accomplishments of the Technical Research Council was persuading other universities to admit blind students to laboratory work.
Witcher was familiar with some of the wartime devices which were thought to hold the key to sensory aids for the blind. He had worked on radar at Bell Telephone Laboratories and on sonic and supersonic guidance devices at Haskins Laboratories. There was a pleasing irony in his coming to work for the Foundation in a research capacity; years earlier the Foundation had turned him down for a scholarship on the grounds that scientific research was an unrealistic career objective for a blind person.
Much of Witcher's early work had to do with the mechanical problems which confronted blind people in earning a living. Some of his solutions, such as a collapsible cane manufactured out of the legs of a photographer's tripod, were of use to large numbers; more than 1,200 of the then novel collapsibles were sold in a short period. Others were unique solutions to unique problems. A blind woman who operated a small dairy business in New England wrote to ask how she could make sure that all milk bottles were uniformly filled to the proper height without having to put her finger in the milk. Witcher adapted a dental aspirator which would be mounted above the bottle in such a way it would produce a distinct sound when the milk reached the desired level; it was also rigged to carry off any excess milk into the next bottle.
While such projects were useful and often challenging, they were not the kind of research Witcher had been employed to do. In early 1949, at his insistence, his responsibilities were narrowed; he would work on electronic guidance devices to the exclusion of all else. A small appropriation for equipment was allotted, but it soon became evident that the substantial sums required for such fundamental research were well beyond the resources of a voluntary agency.
Witcher had been trying to interest the Veterans Administration in picking up where military research had left off. A detailed letter he wrote to the head of the VA's Prosthetic and Sensory Aid Services in late 1948, and another that he drafted for Robert Irwin's signature in 1949, had, in fact, brought him the offer of a job with the VA to direct a research project on sensory aids. The Foundation had agreed to give him a one-year leave of absence for this purpose, but for unrecorded reasons, the plan failed to materialize (the research assignment, as will be seen, went to Thomas Benham) and the decision to have Witcher concentrate on guidance devices represented a compromise solution arranged during a period of major organizational upheaval. Irwin was retiring, a successor had not yet been found, and the trustees were trying to keep a temporarily captainless ship afloat with a minimum of disturbance.
Under the staff reorganization that followed Barnett's appointment, Witcher spent increasing amounts of time as a consultant to the university laboratories which were then beginning to tackle research on sensory problems. What interested him most was the work on cybernetics being conducted by Norbert Wiener and Jerome Wiesner at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This body of theory concerning the information-processing and communication methods common to man and machine was opening an entirely new line of thinking, Witcher reported in mid-1950:
We have at last come to understand that our chief difficulty lies in discovering a channel other than sight by which information can be carried to the brain fast enough and accurately enough to meet the needs connected with independent travel and the reading of printed material.
In the same report, he mentioned he had been asked to serve as an informal consultant to MIT's electronic research laboratory. Thus was forged the first link in the ever closer collaboration that was to develop between the Foundation and MIT in the ensuing decades.
Witcher resigned from the Foundation in September 1950; following a year of teaching in Chicago, he joined the MIT staff, where he developed a number of electronic devices, including an optical probe that was promising enough to reach the stage of pilot production. He was on the verge of further achievements along these lines when, at the age of forty-two, he died of a heart attack in October 1956.
By the time Witcher died, sizable amounts of money and brain power had begun to be invested in research on sensory problems. Almost all of the money came from the federal treasury, much of it channeled through the VA. The brain power was concentrated in a handful of industrial and university laboratories working under federal contract. The prime objectives were to find substitutes for sight in two major areas, reading of print and independent travel, and the origins of much of the work were to be found in the efforts of a historic wartime enterprise, the Committee on Sensory Devices of the Office of Scientific Research and Development.
Toward the closing days of the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a letter to Dr. Vannevar Bush, director of the military research unit which had coordinated the work of the nation's scientists in weapons technology, asking how these same resources could be employed in the postwar world. Among other points raised was the question: "What can the Government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations?"
Robert Irwin's usually fertile imagination failed him when this letter appeared in the press on November 21, 1944. Instead of perceiving the larger implications, he addressed a trivial request to Dr. Bush, asking the Office of Scientific Research and Development to help the Foundation "get a high preference rating for $3,000 to $4,000 worth of machine tools," so that it could begin work on developing appliances to overcome the handicap of blindness. So hush-hush had been the work of the Office of Scientific Research and Development that Irwin was apparently unaware that a special group within it, the Committee on Sensory Devices, had already launched basic research into the question of blindness.
The CSD was headed by Dr. George W. Corner, chairman of the Department of Embryology of the Carnegie Institution. Its other members consisted of two physiologists, a biologist, a specialist in otological research, and a physicist. There were also three consultants attached to the committee, only one of whom, the director of the Institute of Optics of the University of Rochester, had any technical knowledge of visual problems.
The committee's initial mission was to focus on the needs of blinded veterans but, as Dr. Corner later wrote, the problems of this group were "not separable from those of blindness in general."
At its first meeting in January 1944, the CSD decided to focus on two objectives: devices for reading ordinary print, and guidance devices for ranging and obstacle finding. Haskins Laboratories, an independent research organization then located in New York City, was assigned to be the coordinator. Haskins, in turn, selected contractors to design various types of apparatus: four were to work on guidance devices constructed on differing approaches to a radar principle, and one was to concentrate on a reading device that would scan printed matter and translate light impulses into some form of audible code. At a later stage, CSD adopted two additional research objectives: optical aids for the partially sighted, and perfection of a device to produce enlarged embossed images of printed matter.
Although Vannevar Bush's organization was disbanded at war's end in 1945, the work of the Committee on Sensory Devices was taken over by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences with continuing financial support from the VA and the Army Surgeon General's office. CSD's appropriations came to an end in 1947; the final funds were spent on a report published in 1950, Blindness: Modern Approaches to the Unseen Environment, which included not only detailed accounts of the CSD-financed projects but chapters by outside specialists on major phases of work for the blind.
The Committee on Sensory Devices itself remained in existence until 1954 as a subcommittee of the National Research Council's Division of Anthropology and Psychology. Ten years later, at the request of the Veterans Administration, the Council established a new advisory group, a Subcommittee on Sensory Aids, under its Committee on Prosthetics Research and Development. Professor Robert W. Mann of MIT was the subcommittee's first chairman.
Viewed from an engineering standpoint, all the projects sponsored by the original CSD were successful in the sense that, as Dr. Corner wrote, each produced "an instrument which is able to do something not previously accomplished." But, he added candidly:
In each case … we come up against the question of the ability of the human user to make practical use of the sense-stimulation afforded by these instruments. … Whatever missteps the Committee made arose chiefly from insufficient realization of this fact or from disregard of it.
Even in the disciplined ranks of science, the lessons learned by one generation must apparently be relearned by the next. Despite Dr. Corner's warning, sensory research during succeeding decades was dotted with engineering triumphs that worked perfectly in the laboratory and failed at the critical point of consumer use.
In the 25 years following termination of the CSD's projects, the Veterans Administration, which had contributed more than $400,000 between 1945 and 1947, invested approximately $3,500,000 more in the effort to develop reading machines and electronic guidance devices for the blind. Large sums also came from several units of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare—the Social and Rehabilitation Service, the Office of Education, and the National Institutes of Health—and, in a few instances, from the Defense Department. Because some of these grants were shown under other labels, it is not possible to assign a definitive figure to the overall total. An estimate was made in 1968 that federal investment in blindness technology during the preceding 20 years had approximated $8 million.
There exists a voluminous body of literature tracing the history of the several dozen painstaking projects which attempted, for the most part in vain, to find viable substitutes for sight in reading and mobility. As of 1972, a handful of these projects were still current, with some already at the testing stage and one just beginning to seek a market. To describe a few of these is to convey both the immensity of the problems and the lengths to which technology went in the effort to solve them.
Since the only two sensory channels that could be employed as partial substitutes for vision were hearing and touch, all work on print-reading and guidance devices for the blind centered on converting light into sound, taction or both.
The grandfather of the family of devices that transformed a beam of light into aural output was born before World War I when a British physicist, Dr. E. E. Fournier d'Albe, made use of a phenomenon discovered 40 years earlier, the light-sensitive properties of the chemical element selenium, to construct a machine that translated light impulses into sound. He described his instrument, which he named the optophone, in a 1913 issue of a British technical journal and five years later demonstrated it, using a live blind model, Mary Jameson, before the British Scientific Products Exhibit at King's College in London.
The thought that there was any way in which she could have direct access to the printed word fascinated eighteen-year-old Mary; she was undismayed by the complexity of the system involved. As she later described it, the original "white" version of the instrument built in the inventor's laboratory
had one selenium cell which received light reflected from the printed page being read. White paper emitted a full musical chord; the reading was done by the tones blotted out by the black print as the scanner passed along the line.
In a word, reading was effected by what one didn't hear. This was not easy and the frail construction of the instrument added to one's difficulties. The focusing arrangements would slip out of place if anyone walked heavily across the room. However, by August 1918 I could manage a speed of about a word a minute, sufficient to show that print reading was possible.
It was this one-word-a-minute skill that she demonstrated at King's College, and her performance was sufficiently impressive to interest an optical manufacturing firm, Barr and Stroud, Ltd., of Glasgow, to produce a "black" version of the optophone which reversed the reading process so that the sound symbols came from the black print and not from the white paper.
The optophone used six musical notes—GCDEFG—to denote the height and shape of printed letters. Each letter of the alphabet could be identified through the unique combination of notes which signified its vertical, horizontal, or diagonal contours. Mary Jameson was one of the few people in the world who not only mastered this extraordinary code but learned to enjoy doing it. In 1972 she was still using a modernized version of the six-tone optophone at speeds of up to 60 words a minute.
Although the British machine was patented in the United States in 1920 and demonstrated to American leaders in work for the blind two years later, it failed to arouse interest as a practical reading medium and was never produced in this country. However, its polyphonic reading principle was one of those reexamined under the Committee on Sensory Devices. A basic dilemma facing the engineers who approached this assignment was described by Dr. Franklin S. Cooper of Haskins Laboratories as illustrating "the perversity of natural phenomena, that the system which offers most promise of yielding easily intelligible sounds somewhat like English should also be the system which requires the greatest instrumental complexity." Conversely, systems like the optophone that involved simpler instrumentation had the disadvantage of psychological complexity, with the major translation burden falling on the user.
Under CSD a contract was awarded to the Radio Corporation of America to see what could be developed in the way of polyphonic instruments. One of its two inventions was a machine called the "reading pencil" which used photoelectric cells and magnetic tapes to produce a chirping, canary-like sound to characterize each letter of the alphabet. Twenty-five working models of this apparatus were produced and tested, with but marginal results.
In 1954, shortly after the CSD had formally gone out of existence, the VA sponsored a technical conference on reading machines (the first of six that would be held in the next dozen years), at which sufficient enthusiasm was expressed to warrant a new start. Accordingly the VA contracted with two midwestern research organizations, Battelle Memorial Institute and Mauch Laboratories, to do further work on polyphonic reading devices.
After 13 years Battelle's efforts, as reported in 1970 by Howard Freiberger, electronics engineer of the VA's Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Research and Development Division, "culminated in the production of 10 copies of a quite rugged, fairly reliable, portable Model D Optophone fitted into a standard piece of luggage, a ladies' train case." Also evolved was a 200-hour training course in the use of the Battelle optophone, which employed nine tones instead of the six in the original version and used transistors in place of Fournier d'Albe's selenium cell.
Mauch Laboratories, which also began work in 1957, produced a series of devices. One, the Visotoner, was similar to the Battelle machine, but miniaturized. Its scanner weighed only ten ounces; with its batteries and accessories, including a tracking aid called the Colineator, the Visotoner set could fit into an attache case. A tactile variation, called the Visotactor, used vibrators on four finger-rests instead of an auditory output. Both machines were designed to be "medium cost reading devices."
Dr. Michael P. Beddoes, a Canadian engineer who independently developed a polyphonic reading machine called the Lexiphone (his instrument used hisses and clicks in addition to musical tones), observed in 1968 that such machines "can inspire tremendous and lasting affection from a very few peculiarly gifted people." One such, America's equivalent of Mary Jameson, was Harvey L. Lauer. Braille therapist at VA's Hines rehabilitation center for the blind, Lauer began the 200-hour Battelle training course in 1964. Two years later he reported he had found five "categories of efficient uses" for the instrument—proofreading his own typing, identifying currency, reading correspondence, checking bills and bank statements, identifying packaged goods—and expected soon to be able to look up material in dictionaries and reference books. His speed was slow—5 to 25 words a minute. Still, as he said at the time, "The pace is slow, the mileage is improving, but the payload is terrific."
When the first Visotoners and Visotactors were delivered, Lauer mastered both instruments, then taught the Visotoner to Margaret Butow of the Hadley School for the Blind, who proceeded to develop a 25-lesson tape-recorded screening course which the school, under contract from the VA, used as a method of locating candidates who could learn to use this reading machine. Lauer also taught the Visotoner to a number of blinded veterans at the Hines center; they were reading print at speeds of up to 15 words a minute, he reported in 1969.
Clearly, there could never be a mass market for what some irreverent wags called the "optophone follies." An admittedly optimistic estimate made by Freiberger in 1970 projected a maximum of five hundred blind persons as the target population for the Visotoner; he thought that perhaps an equal number, who were tactually rather than aurally oriented, might be found for the Visotactor. He went on to identify the obstacles in locating these target groups, in recruiting teachers and preparing instructional materials, and in procuring machines. In 1967, when the VA bought 30 Visotoners and 10 Visotactors, the unit cost per set was $1,875. Freiberger estimated that the cost per set in a serial production run of 500 machines might come to $1,500, or a total of $750,000. On the assumption that, in a two-year period, 11 instructors could teach the skill to five hundred people, he put the cost of teacher preparation and student instruction over this period at an additional $500,000.
Clearly, few members of the target group could be expected to pay so much themselves; in virtually every case the money would have to come from federal, state, or voluntary agencies, or perhaps from corporations employing a number of blind persons. Nevertheless, it was reasoned, even this large an expenditure would prove worthwhile if it enhanced the ability of some blind persons to achieve or retain vocational independence. On this theory, in 1971 a California group began marketing an entirely different tactual reading machine called the Optacon.
The Optacon did not originate in abstract theorizing; it was prompted by a very human desire, a father's wish to ease the plight of his blind daughter. That the father happened to be an accomplished scientist was the first of two coincidences that propelled the machine from concept to serial production in less than a decade.
Candace ("Candy") Linvill was an infant when retinoblastoma, cancer of the eye, necessitated bilateral enucleation. When she reached school age her parents, who lived in a suburb, decided they would have her attend the small village school rather than be bussed to nearby San Francisco where special classes for blind children were available. The village school accepted the little girl on condition that her mother braille all of her books. Candy was already a fourth-grader when her father, Professor John Linvill of Stanford University's School of Engineering, came upon the idea that could lighten his wife's brailling chores and advance his daughter's education.
On a visit to an IBM research center in Germany, Linvill saw a high speed computer which used vibrating pins as hammers to produce its printout. "If you could print with vibratory pins, you could surely feel them" was his first thought. He went on to develop the vibratory pin notion, using piezoelectric reeds as vibrators, to the point where he could patent it.
The second coincidence took place when Linvill discovered that a colleague at Stanford Research Institute, Dr. James C. Bliss, was also working on tactual reading. An electrical engineer who had done his doctoral work at MIT as part of Professor Samuel J. Mason's group studying sensory aids and communications, Bliss was continuing sensory research at Stanford with the help of major grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the United States Air Force. At the point that he and Linvill met, Bliss had evolved a computer-controlled device that presented letter shapes by a series of air jets. Using Linvill's vibrating reeds in place of Bliss' air jets, the two men joined forces to evolve the basic design of the Optacon. The question then arose: could a blind person identify letter shapes presented in tactual vibration form? Candy Linvill became the first experimental subject, and it was her success at mastering what was essentially an electronic version of line type finger-reading that encouraged the inventors to go on.
As it finally emerged, the Optacon used a transistorized miniature camera, about the size of a pocket knife, to scan inkprint. What the scanner "saw" activated a set of 144 tiny vibrating reeds on a fingertip-sized tactile screen. Placed on this screen, the reader's finger felt the image produced by the vibrating reeds, an image which replicated the shape of the letter the scanner focused on. The entire unit—camera, battery-operated converter, and tactile screen—was contained in a book-sized, 3½-pound package.
Development of the Optacon was largely financed by the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped of the U.S. Office of Education, which over a four-year period made grants totalling more than $1,300,000 to perfect the instrumentation, test prototype models, and produce a pilot run of 50 machines for more extensive testing. The results were sufficiently encouraging—reading speeds of 50 words a minute were achieved after practice by a number of others besides Candy Linvill—so that, on expiration of the federal grants, Linvill and Bliss formed a commercial venture in 1971 to produce and market the Optacon.
The initial handcrafted instruments were priced at $5,000; by the end of 1972, serial production made possible a reduction to $3,450. Along with the Optacon proper, a number of accessories were developed whose price, along with the tuition for a training course, brought the total package close to $5,000. There was sufficient interest, both domestically and abroad, to engender hopes for larger-scale production at lower cost in the near future.
An approach to presenting a wider field of tactile images was developed in the late Sixties by two other California scientists, Paul Bach-y-Rita and Carter C. Collins of the University of the Pacific's Smith-Kettlewell Institute of Visual Sciences. Their invention, the Tactile Vision Substitution System (TVSS), used as a receiver a much larger expanse of body skin than the narrow compass of a forefinger. In its initial form, TVSS employed a chair with 400 plastic vibrators embedded in its back. These were linked to a small, hand-held TV camera which scanned images and reflected their shape in the vibrators, much as the Optacon did. The user leaned back in the chair to feel the pattern vibrated against his back. In a subsequent version the vibrators were moved from the back of a chair to a panel attached to a desk so that the user leaned forward to receive the image on chest and abdomen. Later still, the number of vibrators was increased and packaged in a cummerbund-shaped pad worn around the user's body. Another change was to place the formerly hand-held scanner in a pair of eyeglass frames. Teachers in the schools for blind children that tested these instruments used them to familiarize students with geometric shapes and other visual concepts.
Whatever the stage of development of the Visotoner, the Visotactor, the Optacon, or TVSS, there was no thought in the minds of their inventors or their sponsors that they represented more than interim solutions to the reading machine problem. Far more sophisticated devices were simultaneously in process of exploration. Among the most elaborate were the VA-sponsored experiments at Haskins Laboratories to generate spoken speech from printed text. One involved six separate processes in which words "recognized" by an electronic character reader were recorded in phonemic form by means of a computer "dictionary" storing 150,000 words, were then "punctuated" by means of stress and intonation instructions also stored in the computer, then transformed by another computer program into a synthetic speech output recorded on tape for the blind user to hear.
This multimillion-dollar mechanism, obviously out of reach as a personal reading device, was designed for use in library centers; the principal argument in its favor was that it was capable of producing, at rates of 150 words per minute, intelligible synthetic speech which relieved the user of the need to master an artificial code.
Less complex were the "spelled speech" mechanisms explored in several quarters; these scanned print, letter by letter, and by means of tape reproduced the computer-stored recorded sounds that identified each letter name. The advantage of spelled speech over the optophone was that the user was spared the task of mentally translating a particular combination of tones into the letter "h"—he would instead hear a tape-recorded human voice pronounce "aitch" out of the machine's stored vocabulary. The simpler the user's task, however, the more complex (and more expensive) the machine's. An early spelled-speech machine had been developed for the Committee on Sensory Devices by the Radio Corporation of America. Built before the era of electronic miniaturization, the RCA Recognition Machine had 250 vacuum tubes; the single prototype produced was never considered a practical solution.
Also in process while these auditory translation efforts were under way were projects designed to employ the code many blind people already knew and used—braille. As has been noted, an early version of automated composition of braille textbooks using an IBM computer began at the American Printing House for the Blind in the early Sixties. Subsequent work at MIT developed a system for translating Grade 2 braille into a code compatible with any size or type of computer, and thus capable of time-sharing connection to computers employed for other purposes. In 1970 the Atlanta public school system began using this program to produce virtually instantaneous brailled lessons for its blind students.
The system, which MIT's Sensory Aids Evaluation and Development Center built with support from the Hartford Foundation, consisted of two elements, a standard Teletypewriter and a high-speed braille printer called Braillemboss. Both were linked by ordinary telephone circuit to a commercial IBM computer on a time-sharing basis. Text typed on the Teletypewriter emerged in braille from the Braillemboss at a speed of 10 characters per second. As of 1972, the 20 models of Braillemboss built by MIT were in use not only in school systems but at MIT itself for the benefit of blind scientists, and in several commercial companies employing blind computer programmers.
Professor Robert W. Mann, head of the MIT sensory aids unit, predicted in 1970 that there would be other uses, "including even broadcast stations so that blind radio announcers can get the wire service news in braille directly from the Teletype." Another potential use could be the production of brailled books from the same computer tapes used by publishers in the composition of inkprint books and periodicals. If and when technology developed to the point, often predicted by scientists, where a computer terminal was a standard feature of every home, blind people could have access to home-delivered daily newspapers in braille.
A totally different approach to making braille more accessible was simultaneously under research at the Atomic Energy Commission's Argonne National Laboratory under contract to the University of Chicago in a project supported by the U.S. Office of Education. The Argonne braille machine was designed to do away with bulky braille volumes by storing reading matter, in coded symbols, on an endless belt of magnetic tape which translated the symbols into raised braille characters. The user would feel the dots under his fingertips as the belt moved under them at whatever speed he wished; as the belt returned to the tape cartridge, the dots would be flattened out and the tape would be ready to receive impulses for the formation of new braille characters.
Invention of this device was spurred by the same motivation that had prompted John Linvill to conceive of the Optacon. The inventor, Dr. Arnold P. Grunwald, a physicist on the Argonne staff, had a young son blind from infancy. As of the end of 1972 sources of support were being sought for construction of 30 copies of the mechanism for testing.
Lack of access to printed words was not the only problem of blind readers. For students, scientists and many others, the need for drawings, diagrams, maps and other graphic material was also of importance. It was a group of blind engineers and technicians who induced the Committee on Sensory Devices to adopt, as one of its projects, the modernization of a long-existing device, the Visagraph, which could produce mechanically embossed copies of graphic material and take the place of the handmade raised line drawings that then represented the only other available method.
What gave birth to the Visagraph was a wealthy man's humanitarian impulse. In 1926 Robert E. Naumburg attended an entertainment sponsored by the Boston Committee for the Blind. The blind people in the audience, he said,
made a more lasting impression on me than the performance. So impressed was I by their character, their philosophy, their keenness to get all they could out of life, that when I left them that evening I could think of nothing else. The next morning I began work on the Visagraph.
Naumburg's first apparatus combined sound and touch; he later eliminated the auditory element and developed a version, the Printing Visagraph, that depended on touch alone. This produced, on a thin sheet of aluminum foil, a magnified raised image of a printed page. The desk-sized machine consisted of a scanning section and a recording section that were geared together so the recording mechanism produced a relief image of the printed material scanned by a selenium cell.
Demonstrated at the 1931 World Conference on Work for the Blind, the Visagraph aroused curiosity but little practical interest. Educators, convinced that braille was a superior system for finger-reading, rejected as a throwback the idea of teaching blind people to read linear type. Despite the negative reception, Naumburg continued his work over the years, although the machine never emerged beyond the laboratory stage.
The Visagraph may have been unusable as a machine for reading text, but its ability to reproduce graphic images had practical possibilities. Under contract from CSD, and with Naumburg acting as a consultant, an independent laboratory was assigned to produce an improved version. This instrument, the Faximile Visagraph, yielded enlarged copy on heavy metal foil at the rate of about three minutes per page. It was never produced commercially, partly because there simultaneously became available a simpler copying apparatus which used a special resin that could be baked into raised form, and partly because experience showed that embossed illustrations which faithfully reproduced every detail of the inkprint original were confusing to the finger. Raised diagrams, it was found, needed editorial judgment as to what to include and what to omit.
This was particularly evident in map-making, a subject of continuous study by both educators and mobility specialists. Blind persons could be helped to extend their travel skills if provided with tactual maps of unfamiliar locations. Extensive experimentation was under way in the Sixties and early Seventies on how to evolve a set of uniform symbols that would identify such features as steps, building entrances, mailboxes, bus stops, and such differing terrains as grass, paved roads, wooded areas, and bodies of water. The problem was not merely designating symbols but how to place them on embossed maps so as to provide guidance without clutter.
Maps would undoubtedly continue to be needed, even when electronic mobility aids reached higher performance levels than was the case in 1972. As with reading machines, the effort to construct guidance devices had entailed heavy expenditures since World War II. At least two dozen separate attacks on the problem were made over a 25-year period; of these, three were still being actively pursued in 1972: the VA-Bionic Laser Cane, the Pathsounder and the Kay Binaural Sensor.
CSD, which authorized four contractors to work on guidance devices in 1944, saw the problem in two parts: short-range obstacle detectors that would safeguard the blind walker by informing him of fixed or moving obstructions in his path, and recognition devices that would provide clues for a mental construct of the environment. The initial question was which of the possible energy bands to utilize: sound, supersonic energy, visible light, ultraviolet light. For the most part, the CSD-supported projects concentrated on ultrasonic devices. All of them fell short, either because the information they provided did not yield a sufficient margin of safety, or because their signals were not clear enough to be genuinely useful.
One, however, employed a principle that held some promise. It was a wartime invention of the Army Signal Corps: a portable box resembling a battery lamp which used a narrow beam of visible light to determine range by means of optical triangulation. The light beam registered the presence of reflected obstacles through vibrations in the device's handle. Under CSD contract, 25 experimental units of this sensory aid were constructed by the Radio Corporation of America for testing. It proved to have some serious flaws, principally that it had no capability to warn the user of stepdowns or deep holes in his path. Another aspect that users found objectionable was that the vibrating handle emitted a continuous signal; a change in the signal registered the presence of an obstacle. "It was like having a continuously ringing telephone which you answered only when the ring changed," was the way this feature was described by Dr. Eugene F. Murphy, chief of the Research and Development Division of the VA's Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service.
Nevertheless, when the VA activated a research program to pick up where CSD had left off, the decision was made to evaluate the device in field trials. The evaluation assignment was placed in the hands of a talented blind scientist, Thomas A. Benham.
Benham was, in many ways, a counterpart of Cliff Witcher. They were the same age (both born in 1914). Both had been blind since early childhood and both had pursued careers in science with no concession to their lack of sight. Following graduation from Haverford College in Pennsylvania, Benham got a job as a junior engineer in RCA's development laboratories; working on quartz crystal experiments, he devised the special techniques and instruments he needed to do his full share of the work, among them a brailled micrometer, a voltammeter which registered readings through both sound and touch, a calculator adapted for braille operation.
In full agreement with the belief that blind people could pursue satisfying careers in technical fields if expertise could be shared, Benham later launched a non-profit organization, Science for the Blind, which began by tape-recording and distributing technical literature and went on to produce a series of special instruments for blind scientists. With the help of several organizations and foundations, Science for the Blind was carrying out in 1972 a facet of the work begun by Chick Ritter's Technical Research Council a quarter-century earlier.
All of this was still in the future when, in 1950, Benham accepted the VA assignment. After trying out the Signal Corps guidance device with 67 blind persons, he reported in 1952 that about one out of five could benefit from its use; he also detailed the changes needed in design and performance that could make it more useful and efficient. The following year VA contracted with Haverford College to work out Benham's recommendations and Haverford subcontracted the engineering development to a nearby electronics firm which, after several changes of name, came to be known as Bionic Industries. In the course of a dozen years Bionic built a series of models, beginning with portable "lunchbox" carriers and moving on to smaller, flashlight-shaped machines until the development of integrated electronic circuitry made it possible to compress instrumentation into a cane handle.
This was regarded as an important breakthrough; since no obstacle detector was as yet capable of totally replacing the cane, a guidance device in the cane itself meant that the blind traveler could have one hand free. The several cane models developed in the mid-Sixties also featured something new. Previous devices had contained two detectors, one aimed at obstacles straight ahead and a second focused downward to warn of major dropoffs. Now a third channel was added, aimed upward to reflect overhanging signs or tree branches that might collide with the user's head.
Soon thereafter came development of the laser, a powerful beam of light emanating from a tiny space. In 1966 this made possible the first laser cane. Four years later, after preliminary testing and redesign, ten copies of the VA-Bionic Laser Cane were produced for use in field evaluations with blinded veterans. The instrument emitted both audible and tactile signals. The middle, or forward-looking, beam provided a tactile signal, a pin vibrating against the index finger of the hand holding the cane. The other two signals were given by tones (high-pitched for overhead obstacles, low-pitched for major dropoffs) from a small loudspeaker in the cane handle's crook.
A careful protocol for evaluation of these canes in actual use was developed by a panel of engineers and mobility therapists. Performance under varying traffic conditions would be filmed and compared with the same subject's performance using a conventional long cane. Out of twenty years of experience with guidance devices, years marked by alternating hopes and disappointments, the VA adopted this testing procedure because, as Eugene Murphy pointed out in late 1971:
It is not enough to say that the cane is accepted or rejected by certain percentages of users. Rather it is necessary to discover the types of users for whom it is most appropriate. … one needs an armamentarium of devices from which selection can be made.
Any such armamentarium might have a place for the ultrasonic mobility aid invented by a New Zealand engineer, developed under British financial sponsorship and tested in more than twenty countries—a device which, in 1972, had reached about the same stage of readiness as the laser cane.
This device, the Kay binaural sensor, went through a series of engineering refinements comparable to those undergone by the laser cane as technological advances made it possible to pack electronic circuits into ever-smaller spaces. It reached the production engineering stage in 1965, a half-dozen years after Dr. Leslie Kay, then a visiting lecturer at Birmingham University (and later head of the Department of Electric Engineering of New Zealand's University of Canterbury), conceived the idea for an echolocation instrument and enlisted the support of St. Dunstan's and Britain's National Research Development Corporation in developing it.
Originally contained in a hand-held instrument about the size and shape of an ordinary flashlight, the Kay device was later redesigned to incorporate its sensor and receiver in an eyeglass frame whose earpieces were equipped with tiny loudspeakers. The power supply and control instrumentation were lodged in a small pack that could be clipped to the belt or worn elsewhere on the body.
In their 1972 version the Kay spectacles contained three tiny transducers mounted above the nosepiece between the lenses. The center transducer emitted a high-frequency sonic pulse which, when it struck an object, produced vibrations in the other two. These were converted by the control pack into sound the user heard through the minute speakers, similar to hearing aids, mounted over the earpieces of the spectacles. The volume of sound was an index of distance; the nearer the object, the louder the sound. The binaural effect—the signal reaching one ear might differ in pitch from the signal reaching the other—enabled the user to gain more precise information about the location of the obstacle.
Following testing in Europe—one British experimenter reported that over a nine-month period he walked 1,250 miles with the help of the device—a yearlong series of evaluations was conducted in the United States by Kay and a team of associates from the University of Canterbury in 1971–72. Working with mobility teachers who first trained under blindfold in the use of the device and then taught it to an aggregate of some one hundred blind users, the team found a high level of acceptance in both groups. But more work remained to be done in engineering redesign and in improving the training program, Kay reported after analyzing the test results.
One of his conclusions represented a surprising turn of the wheel. "It would appear," he wrote, "that some of the blind users could play an important role in future training programs." Acknowledging that this reversed the contemporary practice, in both cane and dog guide mobility programs, of utilizing only sighted instructors, he nevertheless found that some of the blind persons who tested his guidance device "better understood the language of the [sensory] aid and the perception of the environment which it makes possible."
A third object which had the potential of fitting into an armamentarium of mobility aids was also a pulsed ultrasonic unit, one developed at MIT by Lindsay Russell with financial support from a philanthropic foundation. Known as the Pathsounder, this lightweight device was designed specifically to detect obstacles at above-waistline level as a supplement to cane-probing at ground level. Hung on a strap worn around the neck, it was tested in the early Seventies by the VA, whose findings turned up an unexpected bonus. The device was an effective clear-path indicator for blinded veterans confined to wheelchairs.
Impressive as were the technological accomplishments represented by these three guidance devices, what emerged most clearly from a review of their performances was that all three were supplements to, and not replacements for, the more familiar mobility aids: the long cane and the dog guide. Whether engineering genius might one day conjure up a total replacement for cane or dog remained, in 1972, as problematic as whether medical technology might one day find a way of inserting TV cameras in empty eye sockets or devising some other prosthesis that could produce artificial vision. Some work on such a prosthesis had already been attempted: in England, where electrically stimulated probes inserted in the occipital cortex of a blind nurse produced images of ricegrain-sized points of light called phosphenes; in the United States, where several medical research teams were working on the concept of combining electrodes inserted in the brain with eyeglass-mounted TV cameras; in the Soviet Union, where experiments with artificial vision were conducted on dogs.
Given the impressive sums and high-powered engineering talent invested in sensory aids research over a 25-year period, what useful role could be played by a non-governmental body? This was the question repeatedly confronting the American Foundation for the Blind once government-financed efforts gained momentum in the Fifties.
Soon after M. Robert Barnett took office, he convened a series of conferences which brought together Foundation officers and technical staff members with a group of outside scientists. With few variations, the basic themes at these early meetings would be echoed time and again in the decades to follow. They were essentially these:
The Foundation should employ a small number of personnel professionally qualified to understand and evaluate the research under way in various laboratories, to maintain close liaison with the scientists conducting these projects, and to serve as consultants to them on the needs and capabilities of blind persons. It should restrict its own research efforts to those for which its staff and facilities were equipped and not venture into new and untried fields. It should take responsibility for keeping the field of work for the blind continuously informed on the progress of technical research. It should have the benefit of policy guidance from an advisory committee of leading scientific and technological specialists.
The first such committee, appointed in 1952, was small but choice: Dr. Thorton C. Fry of Bell Telephone Laboratories; Dr. William C. Geer, head of his own consulting laboratory in Ithaca, New York; and Dr. Jerome B. Wiesner of MIT. In later years, others of equal prominence served for varying lengths of time, among them Sherman M. Fairchild of the electronics firm that bore his name, Peter Goldmark of CBS Laboratories, Edwin H. Land of the Polaroid Corporation.
As of 1972, the Foundation's Research Advisory Committee was headed by the sociologist Dr. John W. Riley, Jr., a vice-president of the Equitable Life Assurance Society. Its members included Dr. Edward E. David, Jr., formerly of Bell Telephone Laboratories, and, in 1972, director of the Office of Science and Technology in the White House; Dr. Heinz E. Kallman, consulting physicist; Professor Herbert Hyman of Wesleyan University's Department of Sociology; Dr. Stephen A. Richardson, visiting professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine; and Dr. Wiesner, who had by then become president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Wiesner, who was also a Foundation trustee, had served as an advisory committee member continuously since 1952, maintaining his interest even when he was White House science advisor during the Kennedy administration.
The technical resources available to the Foundation were augmented, beginning in 1967, by the practice of appointing part-time consultants to the research staff in the areas of social science, physical science and statistics. An added technical resource, informal but intimate, was the continuous link with MIT, initiated through Clifford Witcher and subsequently brought to a more intensive level through John Kenneth Dupress, who did as much as anyone to influence the changing course of Foundation research. To see his role in perspective, it is necessary to go back to the period when Ritter and Witcher were the leading spirits in promoting the development of aids and appliances.
For a year or so after Witcher's resignation in 1950, the Foundation was without a technical research chief. The post was filled in 1952 by Charles P. Tolman, an engineer whose background included considerable experience in prevention of blindness work. He had developed a widely used tonometer—an eyeball-pressure measuring instrument which made possible early diagnosis of glaucoma. Already semi-retired when he joined the staff, Tolman remained less than three years but left some significant legacies. One was that he taught the endlessly curious Chick Ritter a great deal about low-vision aids—knowledge Ritter was to put to use in starting a service for partially sighted persons.
John Dupress was hired in late 1958, one of several new staff members in the reorganized administrative structure which consolidated social, behavioral, and technological research. The reorganized unit operated under the newly reaffirmed policy that emphasis would be put on "stimulating and motivating universities, laboratories, government agencies and direct-service rehabilitation agencies to plan and carry through research relating to blindness."
It would have been hard to find a more accomplished hand at "stimulating and motivating" than John Dupress. Many people, including his admirers, used more pungent words—gadfly, needler, prod—to describe his impact. His admirers were ardent but not particularly numerous. Dupress, who tended to be caustic, hypercritical, and assertive in pursuit of his aims, neither sought nor attained broad popularity.
The wellsprings of this prickly personality were easily discernible. Orphaned at an early age and raised by a foster mother in his native Massachusetts, Dupress was to endure an even more traumatic young manhood. He enlisted in the Army at age nineteen, achieving such high test scores that he was assigned to an advanced communications training program at Lehigh University. Despite this specialized education, he was shipped overseas with an infantry unit in 1944. He saw action at Omaha Beach and then in the Battle of the Bulge where, in December 1944, an exploding hand grenade pierced his face and body in 26 places, including his eyes, and he was captured behind German lines.
His experience as a prisoner of war embittered him for life. The camp to which he was assigned, he claimed, carried out brutal psychological experiments on prisoners. He lost not only his eyes but his left hand, which was severed at the wrist. What remained intact was his fighting spirit.
Surgery gave him a cosmetic hand prosthesis and a pair of plastic eyes, and he went on to Old Farms for rehabilitation, and then to Princeton University, where he rolled up a good academic record, operated a small recording company, and founded an electronics club. Although his major was psychology, he was increasingly intrigued with electronic gadgetry, using a wire recorder to take down lectures, then a dictaphone to record his notes on small plastic discs. After graduation he continued to be enamored of sound recording systems. The stereophonic system in the listening room at the heart of the Connecticut home he later designed and had built was a marvel of high fidelity.
A complex, proud, and reserved individual, Dupress had no desire to be associated with other blind people, still less to make a career of work for the blind. He took the job at the Foundation because of the challenge it offered in terms of technological and human engineering. The problems entailed in harnessing science for the benefit of blind persons would never be solved, he believed, "by isolated research for the blind." Nor would those capable of solving the problems be motivated purely by altruism. "The best research minds can be obtained by presenting our problems as complex and stimulating ones rather than as charity items."
What attracted him was the opportunity to be associated with the "best research minds." And once he became a member of the Foundation staff, he lost little time in seeking them out. One of his earliest official reports read: "The Director of this Bureau [Dupress] happily announces that he has secured the interest of three additional major research facilities" whose work he would coordinate with the relevant research conducted at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, 16 students were working on designing machines that could feed information into human sensory channels, while in two affiliated laboratories work was going forward on aspects of auditory research. Dupress himself was lecturing in the man-machine systems design course and serving as a consultant in the auditory research projects.
Despite the lack of a science degree, Dupress could and did make contributions to complex technological thinking, but where he really excelled was in seeking out sources of large-scale research grants. Among the many beneficiaries of this skill was James Bliss of Stanford, who credited Dupress with introducing him to the right people in Washington when he needed support for an early sensory aids project. However, it was this very skill at grantsmanship that eventually led to Dupress' departure from the Foundation at the end of 1963 to head a newly established unit at MIT, the Sensory Aids Evaluation and Development Center. He had been the prime mover in arranging the necessary $98,000 grant from the Vocational Rehabilitation Administration.
As director of this center, whose primary purpose was field-testing the sensory hardware evolved in MIT's laboratories, Dupress kept in constant touch with his former colleagues on the Foundation's research staff and with others in work for the blind. When, in December 1967, a heart attack ended his life at the age of forty-five, the loss was keenly felt, even by those who had never developed much personal rapport with him.
In 1960, as an initial step toward its changed role in research, the Foundation secured an $80,000 matching grant from the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation to assess the status of worldwide technology in relation to aids for the blind. The survey culminated in the first International Congress on Technology and Blindness, convened in New York in June 1962, at which papers were given by scientists and technologists from England, France, Denmark, Poland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Austria, Israel, West Germany, Canada, and the Soviet Union, as well as the United States. This first conference, whose proceedings were detailed in four volumes published the following year, was succeeded by several other international conclaves: one in Rotterdam in 1964, one in London in 1966 under the sponsorship of St. Dunstan's, and one in 1971 in New York as part of the Foundation's 50th anniversary observance. These were interspersed with a number of other research conferences held in the United States. There were many useful by-products of these meetings, not least of which was that they brought about face-to-face contacts between the technologists and the practitioners expected to make use of their work.
The necessity for continuous dissemination of information on the thrust and progress of research was one of the major themes of the 1962 international congress. To satisfy this need the International Research Information Service (IRIS) was created in 1964. Launched with the help of a federal grant and then maintained out of Foundation funds, IRIS set up a sophisticated document-handling system for the collection and indexing of research material from all over the world. The information gathered was issued in a variety of forms: bibliographies, state-of-the-art reports, monographs, conference proceedings, and a series of research bulletins which had reached 25 in number by 1972. Toward the end of that year, an updated international catalog of aids and appliances for the blind was being readied for publication. The first such catalog had been issued ten years earlier as one of the four volumes to emerge from the first technology congress.
Throughout the period that some members of the Foundation's research staff were working to help shape the electronic future, other staffers marched steadily onward with the adaptation, production, and distribution of the less sophisticated devices that could be made immediately available. Until he left the Foundation in 1959 to move to Denver for a position with the Colorado state agency for the blind, Charles Ritter continued to be the pivot of a steadily growing aids and appliances service.
One of the devices listed in the Foundation's very first catalog was a simple magnifying glass. The sales response sharpened Ritter's awareness of how many legally blind people had fragments of residual vision which the right kind of optical aid could enhance. A number of ophthalmologists responded helpfully to his quest for more information, and Ritter gradually grew highly knowledgeable about the world of optical goods: microscopic lenses for close work, telescopic lenses for distance, projection readers of various strengths and types, devices to concentrate light or to diffuse it.
The use of magnification to enlarge the image registered on the retina of the human eye was nothing new. Eyeglasses had been worn for centuries; Nero was said to have used a polished gem as a magnifier. There were, however, some new elements that led to an upsurge of interest in optical aids following World War II. One was the disintegration of the long-held belief that vision was a consumable item that had to be conserved. Ophthalmologists discovered that the use of residual vision did no permanent harm to weak eyes; the effects of eyestrain could be readily overcome by a period of rest. The other factor had to do with advances in optical technology that made possible the production of cosmetically acceptable high-strength compound lenses.
In 1924 some heartening results through the use of telescopic spectacles had been announced at a meeting of the American Medical Association in a paper given by a pair of Chicago ophthalmologists, one of whom, Jules C. Stein, went on to achieve renown in a totally different field as head of the giant Music Corporation of America. The Illinois Society for the Prevention of Blindness, some of whose clients had been included in the patient group, called the telescopic lenses to the attention of Anne Sullivan Macy at a time when she was suffering one of her periodic bouts with eye trouble. Fitted with a pair, she wrote Marion A. Campbell, secretary of the Illinois Society; "You may be as enthusiastic as you please for me in endorsing the telescopic lenses—I never knew there was so much in the world to see."
Presumably Mrs. Macy wore these glasses in the privacy of her home. They were hardly ornamental. Robert Irwin described them as "a sort of miniature pair of opera glasses attached to spectacle holders about one inch from front to back, rather heavy, and of course very conspicuous. Few people would want to be seen on the street with them."
In the years after World War II manufacturing techniques using plastic in place of glass made high-magnification spectacles lighter in weight and more acceptable. At the same time, optical firms began to produce a greatly widened range of microscopic and telescopic devices and a few forward-looking agencies for the blind began experimenting with optical aids for clients who had some residual vision. One of the pioneers was the Industrial Home for the Blind in Brooklyn, which instituted a low-vision clinic in 1953 and reported, in a follow-up study of its first five hundred clients, that optical aids had enabled a sizable number to get or keep jobs or, in the case of students, to manage academic studies more successfully. The study made clear, however, that there was little magic in any such program. Not all eye conditions could be helped, and among those that did respond, a key factor was client motivation.
At the same time one of the problems of all groups rendering low-vision services concerned the professional tensions and rivalries between ophthalmologists (medical doctors who treat eye diseases) and optometrists (non-medical specialists in refraction and correction of visual defects). Most of the former, oriented to medical or surgical treatment of eye problems, found it economically unfeasible to invest time in fitting special lenses and training patients in their use. Nor were they, in many instances, as knowledgeable about the potentialities of such optical aids as optometrists. Harry J. Spar, then assistant director of IHB, who served as a consultant on blinded veterans, summed up the situation when, in 1953, he wrote the VA's chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation that IHB's low vision clinic had
found a number of instances in which ophthalmologists have indicated that lenses could not be helpful and in which spectacular help has resulted from the work of the optometrist. If the fitting of lenses to blinded veterans is left to the judgment of the ophthalmologist, I am afraid that many of them will not receive the help that may be available to them through the use of special lenses. I am afraid, too, that if the employment of an optometrist is left to the discretion of medical personnel, it is not likely to materialize.
One of the minor projects undertaken by the Committee on Sensory Devices before it wound up was a small optical aids survey conducted by the Dartmouth Eye Institute. The survey's major conclusion, Dr. Corner reported, was "that the possibility of designing better reading glasses of relatively high power, and projection magnifiers which throw images of print upon a screen for convenient reading should be seriously investigated." Four prototype projection magnifiers were subsequently built under CSD contract and sent to the Perkins School for the Blind for testing. "There is no doubt that the projection magnifier will be useful," Dr. Corner said after the tests were completed.
One such device, the Megascope, was designed by the Foundation's technical staff in 1953 and built to its specifications under a $21,000 appropriation for tooling and the manufacture of 100 units. The machine, a table-top unit, consisted of a tray on which reading matter was placed face down. Magnified 12 to 25 times, the print was projected on a lighted screen facing the viewer, who used an adjustable frame to move the material to be read from side to side and front to back. The first model sold out the year it came out; later models featured various operating improvements and lower prices.
The Megascope was one of several dozen optical aids—hand-held, stationary and illuminated magnifiers, pocket telescopes, monoculars, lenses of all types, light-occluding devices, etc.—that the Foundation displayed at an international congress of ophthalmologists in 1954. It was the first time such a collection had been put on view for the medical eye specialists, and it had a considerable impact. Ritter, who organized and managed the display, reported that a number of ophthalmologists
insisted on ordering an assortment of magnifiers on the spot. Others expressed the determination to persuade agencies for the blind in their home communities to set up "seeing aid centers" where the hand magnifiers could be tried out. Still others told of plans to establish full-blown low vision clinics to work intensively on the problems.
This swelling wave of interest, together with the reports emerging from the local agencies which had begun low-vision services, led the Foundation in 1954 to embark on a three-year project of clinical investigation and evaluation of optical aids. A committee of ophthalmologists, optometrists and optical research specialists was organized with Dr. Richard E. Hoover as coordinator. Their aim was to gather data for a manual detailing principles and procedures for the treatment of low-vision disabilities. This would be accomplished, the Foundation's annual report for 1953–54 explained, "by stimulating the formation of low vision clinics in some medical schools and hospitals where uniform levels of treatment and methods of collecting data may be employed." The hope was not for "sight restoration in the ordinary sense" but to "find the best methods of using residual sight up to its maximum."
A year later the Foundation reported that it had been invited to exhibit optical aids before numerous medical groups, and that 3,000 copies of a pamphlet on the subject had been distributed. Indeed, said the 1954–55 annual report, such was the pace and degree of interest shown that the original three-year program might be completed in half that time.
The promise implicit in this optimistic start was never fully realized. Problems, perhaps not adequately anticipated, arose over sponsorship and control of low-vision clinics. Ophthalmologists wanted them located in hospital outpatient departments; this, as Spar had predicted, tended to exclude or downgrade the participation of the non-medical optometrist. On the other side, agencies for the blind had difficulty enlisting the cooperation of the medical eye specialist because of his preference for hospital settings. There were also disputes over the people to be served by the clinics.
Some of these vexing issues were reflected in a policy statement the Optical Aids Research Committee issued in December 1957. It said that a low-vision service "should be available to all age groups of blind persons—not just those who seem to be employable" and that such a service "should not be so closely identified with charity that persons who can pay … will not use it; neither should it be so prohibitive in price that its services cannot be purchased for the benefit of those less able to pay for it." On the last point, the statement added:
Because optical aids are associated with rehabilitation of "blind" persons, there is an assumption that all such persons are dependent upon and entitled to a free service provided by the community. This is not always true. … it is hoped and believed that in the future the majority of persons with severely defective vision will receive proper fitting and follow-up services through their private practitioners.
The same walking-on-eggs approach was reflected in the carefully worded handling of the question of auspices. After naming four possible locations for optical aids services—hospital, medical arts center, agency for the blind or "any other publicly or privately maintained clinical setting where community professional resources are assembled"—the statement said that the Foundation "implies no arbitary preference for any of the foregoing settings. … The decision regarding sponsorship and physical location of an optical aids service and all that it entails calls for community consensus and action."
It was just about the time of this statement that optical aids clinics were approved by the federal government as components of the overall vocational rehabilitation program, and about 30 such clinics were rapidly established all over the country. With this development, the Foundation felt its pilot task had been concluded; what remained was primarily a job of medical education and stimulation. On this basis, an agreement was reached in 1960 with the National Society for the Prevention of Blindness; they would take over the national program in low-vision services, including the evaluation and distribution of optical aids. However, Barnett assured his trustees, the Foundation's interest in optical aids would "always remain high. Its function as a catalytic agent has served the nation well; its role in the future will be one of constant vigilance."
A dozen years later, that vigilance brought the question of low-vision services back onto the Foundation's priority lists. Many of the clinics were functioning at a low level; some existed in name only, while others were only open for brief hours at long intervals. Toward the end of 1972 negotiations were going on toward the possibility of a tripartite effort, under which the National Society for the Prevention of Blindness would continue to promote knowledge and use of optical aids in the medical and health professions, the National Accreditation Council would evolve an up-to-date set of standards for low-vision services, and the Foundation would set about stimulating a nationwide network of delivery systems that would embrace both the fitting of optical aids and the accompanying training and follow-up services which experience had shown to be essential elements in vision rehabilitation.
Coincidental, but aptly symbolic of the Foundation's reentry into the field of low-vision activity, was the fact that its 1972–73 aids and appliances catalog featured a new optical aid, a successor to the Megascope. The Optiscope was a portable illuminated optical enlarger that produced four-power magnification in color or black and white on a polarizing screen at a price of $295. Other projection magnifiers were also on the market, including closed circuit television setups, but they were far more expensive.
If enlargement of type by means of an optical device could make printed matter accessible to some legally blind persons, could not the same results be achieved by pre-enlarging the print?
So far as children were concerned, an affirmative answer had been found as early as 1915 when Robert Irwin, then supervisor of classes for blind children attending Cleveland public schools, organized a non-profit firm to publish textbooks in half-inch-high type. He moved the enterprise to his home in New Jersey when he came east to work for the Foundation. Never a large-scale operation (Irwin told people he conducted it as a sort of hobby), it had a catalog of some 70 titles for first grade through junior high and sales of about $10,000 a year when Irwin retired and the firm was liquidated.
A logical source for large type textbooks was the American Printing House for the Blind, because of its receipt of annual federal subsidies for the production of educational materials for blind children. The Printing House began regular publication of such books when its plant facilities were expanded in 1947; in the 1972 fiscal year it produced some 45,000 copies of close to 500 titles for use in residential schools and day classes for visually impaired children.
The hope long entertained by educators that commercial publishers would find it economically feasible to enter the field of large-type publishing began to be realized in the late Forties when a Pittsburgh firm, Stanwix House, published a few children's titles. However, it was not until the mid-Sixties, when photoenlarging and offset printing techniques brought production costs within reach, that large-type books for adult readers made their appearance. The first, John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, was produced in an 18-point edition by Keith Jennison Books in 1965. By 1970 there were 1,500 adult and children's titles listed in Books in Print, and a Library of Congress reference circular listed more than 40 producers of large-type reading matter. Slightly less than half of these were trade book publishers; the balance were non-profit agencies, religious publishing houses, photoenlarging and microfilm services, and some periodicals. The New York Times, which began issuance of its Large Type Weekly in 1967, claimed 14,500 readers in 1972. A large-type edition of selected articles from the monthly Reader's Digest had a 1972 circulation of 5,000.
One of the findings of a 1966 study made by the New York Public Library under a grant from the United States Office of Education was that books in large print attracted not only legally blind persons but many others with "tired eyes," particularly the aging. The initial study, which placed 75 different book titles in three major branch libraries, evoked so much reader response that the federal grant was renewed for a second year to increase the number of titles and extend the service to additional branches. Large-type books were included in the National Accreditation Council's Standards for Production of Reading Materials for the Blind and Visually Handicapped issued in 1970, with criteria listed for typography, design, binding, paper, etc.
"Sometimes it seems no limit is in sight for the uses of large print books," Robert S. Bray of the Library of Congress wrote in 1971. He did not have in mind, he added, the particular use reputedly made by a certain Mr. Twichell. This man was a felon who, according to an anecdote related by Bray in an article in the Large Print Journal,
complained to prison authorities that the print in his Bible was too small, and asked that a druggist friend be allowed to bring him another in larger type. The friend saturated the pages with corrosive sublimate which Mr. Twichell rolled into balls, and with the aid of water, swallowed them. Unfortunately, Mr. Twichell had no further need of any kind of reading material after that.
The economic factors—high unit cost and marketing difficulties—which kept optical aids and large-type books from reaching potential users among the great proportion of legally blind persons who had some degree of residual vision were even more evident when it came to the smallest sector of the blind population: those who were also deaf. When the Foundation announced in 1971 that it would mount a major effort to close the gap between producers and consumers of aids for the blind, there was no thought that there could ever be a commercially sustainable market for appliances designed specifically for the deaf-blind. As of 1972 there were only a few, one of which had been in regular production for 20 years: the Tellatouch.
Its history was an interesting example of retrograde progression. As will be seen in a later chapter, the Foundation's major efforts on behalf of the deaf-blind got under way in the mid-Forties after a number of abortive starts. When, at about the same time, the decision was made to launch a research laboratory, one of the projects listed for exploration was "an electric conversation board … a device which would make possible the carrying on of a conversation with the deaf-blind." The concept was a relatively simple one. A sighted person would sit facing a typewriter-like keyboard on which he would type his message, and the machine would translate the message electrically, letter by letter, into braille symbols which would surface on a plate at the back of the machine where a deaf-blind person could feel them with a fingertip.
A prototype was worked out by Kleber and later modified by Witcher. In field testing, however, this model, known as the Electro-braille Communicator, had a number of operating flaws and it was withdrawn from the market in 1952. Both Kleber and Witcher were gone from the Foundation by then, but Tolman tackled the problem and finally solved it by changing the construction principle from electrical to mechanical. Since the "electro" element was gone, a new name was needed. Rechristened the Tellatouch, the device helped end social isolation for hundreds of deaf-blind children and adults.
In the version distributed in 1972 the Tellatouch had a four-bank keyboard. The top three banks held the inkprint alphabet and numerals; the bottom bank, consisting of six braille keys arranged as in a braillewriter, made it possible for a blind person to send messages through the machine to one who was deaf-blind.
The Tellatouch and other Foundation-made appliances were sold at the cost of materials and direct labor. The initial practice of pricing aids and appliances below overall cost—i.e., without taking into account salaries, handling charges or overhead—began to be modified in 1959 when a budget review showed a deficit of $80,000 on gross annual sales of $160,000. Although the trustees formally reaffirmed at that time that "whatever the cost to the agency, this service activity should be continued as a vital and needed service to the blind," mounting sales and correspondingly climbing deficits in the ensuing years prompted a decision, in 1964, not to go on providing discounts on convenience sales of unadapted commercial items but to charge the regular retail price, to add a 20 percent charge to the wholesale cost of adapted items provided this surcharge did not bring the price up over the retail price of the same item in unadapted form, and to add a 20 percent markup for packaging, postage, and overhead to the production cost of Foundation-manufactured devices which had no commercial equivalent.
This move helped, but did not solve, the deficit problem, which came to $400,000 in the decade of the Sixties. Beginning in 1967, an effort was made to restrict sales to mail orders and discontinue the over-the-counter retail operation which, while representing less than 10 percent of the sales volume, was costly in terms of wages and overhead. Local agencies for the blind were offered attractive discounts on catalog items, but the offer failed to gain sufficient response and in 1970 Richard H. Migel, chairman of the Business Advisory Committee, reported that the upshot of explorations to establish suitable retail outlets elsewhere was that the "new location is beside our front door." Moving the over-the-counter salesroom from an upper floor to the Robert B. Irwin Room on the ground floor also mitigated one of the earlier difficulties, that of ushering blind customers through the maze of buildings that made up the Foundation complex.
Although break-even status for aids and appliances was not yet in sight in 1972, annual deficits had been reduced to some extent and the Foundation board remained convinced that the importance of this service to blind people outweighed the prospect of continuing losses. One factor in the smaller deficits was Congressional passage, in 1967, of new postal regulations which expanded the free mailing privileges long in existence for reading matter for the blind to include special devices and equipment sold at or below cost.
The 1972–73 catalog of aids and appliances, with its more than 300 items ranging in price from a wire loop needle threader (10 cents) to a diamond-dial self-winding gold braille watch complete with 14-karat Florentine finish gold bracelet ($352.95), was expected to produce sales in excess of $500,000. Computerized mailing lists and inventory controls helped keep down the costs of handling the high volume of business. Although the Outlook, now a professional journal, had long since discontinued "The Suggestion Box" as a monthly feature, the Ziegler Magazine and other periodicals continued to inform their blind readers of the availability of new or different items through a column regularly supplied by the manager of the Foundation's Aids and Appliances Division. Following Ritter's departure, this position was occupied until 1966 by Arthur Keller; in 1972 the post was held by Ira Kaplan, who had taken it on in 1968.
The future course of the aids and appliance service will be influenced by the thrust toward moving the products of biomedical technology into the market place and the publication, some time in 1973, of the IRIS international catalog, which will list and describe some 1,100 devices of all types actually in production in 18 countries. Some of these have long been the objects of international exchange, with the Foundation both importing and exporting items from and to foreign organizations for the blind. The exchange process also embraced ideas and technology. For example the Foundation's research staff kept in steady touch with James C. Swail, a blind scientist associated with the National Research Council of Canada, who in 25 years produced or adapted close to a hundred instruments and devices, including his own version of an ultrasonic obstacle detector, Milton Graham and Leslie Clark reported in 1972 that in Western Europe research projects dealing with visual impairment had tripled in five years; in England alone, 34 such programs were under way.
There are those who believe that development of a workable visual prosthesis is only ten or twenty years away. Others are less sanguine. Still, as one psychologist put it: "The door is opening wider, no doubt, but we remain on the doorstep, full of hope."