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Portable Teletype Machine for the Deaf

Minicom III TTY machine made by Ultratec, Inc., Madison, Wisconsin, c. 1986-1989.
(Museum object #2004.58.2a-h)

One of history’s ironies is that the telephone - whose inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, was a life-long teacher of the deaf - thoroughly excluded deaf people for almost a century. In fact, almost all of the communications technologies that have revolutionized modern life – the telegraph, the telephone, movies, and television – have been relatively inaccessible to deaf or hearing-impaired people. As late as the mid-1960s, only a few dozen deaf people regularly used any of the 85 million telephones in the United States and Canada. In the past several decades, however, technology has increasingly re-integrated the deaf into the world of modern communication. A Madison company, Ultratec, Inc., which manufactured the Minicom III TTY machine featured here, has been at the forefront of that process.

Madison resident Carolyn Mattern used this TTY machine to keep in touch with her brother and sister-in-law, David and Marene Mattern of Jacksonville, Illinois, both of whom are deaf. Manufactured by Ultratec between 1986 and 1989, the TTY transmitted text via telephone lines. To operate it, Ms. Mattern turned the unit on, placed her telephone handset in the black acoustic cups on top, and dialed the intended number (the recipient also had to have a TTY). Lights on the Minicom III flashed at different rates to indicate dial tone, ring tones, a busy signal, or speech. When the connection was made, Ms. Mattern began typing her message on the keyboard. Outgoing and return messages appeared in the text window above the keyboard and in the window of her brother’s TTY.

The term “TTY” is short for “teletypewriter,” a form of electro-mechanical printing telegraph first used commercially in 1910. The teletype converted textual information into electrical impulses, transmitted them via wires, and then printed them out on a specially configured typewriter. Since the teletype transmitted text rather than sound, its application to deaf communication was obvious, and experimenters toyed with the idea unsuccessfully for several decades. Establishing a teletype infrastructure capable of connecting to every household and business proved unfeasible.

Robert H. Wietbrecht (1920-1983), a physicist and amateur radio enthusiast who was himself deaf, eventually broke this logjam. (Weitbrecht is profiled in the Minicom III user’s manual.) In 1964 Weitbrecht developed the acoustic coupler, a type of modem that could accurately transmit and receive teletype messages via telephone lines, thus finally making the nationwide telephone network accessible to deaf users. With a telephone, an acoustic coupler, and a teletypewriter (most of which were surplus AT&T models at the time), deaf people could finally communicate directly over long distances - at least theoretically.

Significant hurdles, however, remained in developing Weitbrecht’s invention into a practical technology, including setting universal technical standards; securing phone company support (AT&T held a monopoly on telephone lines); and convincing manufacturers to produce this equipment. Ten years after Weitbrecht’s breakthrough, TTYs still cost between $650 and $1000 dollars each – far too expensive for most people to afford.

In the mid 1970s University of Wisconsin electrical engineer Robert M. Engelke was designing assistive devices for people with disabilities when he became friends with members of Madison’s deaf community. As a result, Engelke became interested in improving text communications for the deaf. He founded Ultratec, Inc. in 1978 to manufacture a low cost, reliable TTY that could be accessible to anyone who wanted one.

Relying upon extensive feedback from TTY users, Ultratec made convenience and affordability a priority, and proceeded to establish a series of benchmarks in the field. In 1978 the company introduced the first pocket-sized TTY; in 1980 it developed the first TTY with a memory and ASCII capability (available for less than $500); and in 1981, Ultratec introduced the milestone Minicom, a full keyboard TTY that cost less than $200.

Since then, Ultratec has continued to refine its designs, add features, and develop new products and services for hearing impaired customers. The company has become the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment for the hearing impaired and by one recent account, now supplies 85% of the world market for this equipment. In 1999, Telecommunications for the Deaf, Inc. presented Engelke with the Andrew Saks Engineering Award for outstanding contributions to telecommunications accessibility.

The Mattern families stopped using their Minicoms several years ago, and now communicate primarily via computers. While instant text messaging and e-mail are now commonplace among hearing as well as deaf populations, the TTY represented a huge step forward at the time it was made. Having an affordable, reliable way to communicate with distant friends, family and colleagues was a significant improvement in the lives of deaf people.

[Sources: The National Association of the Deaf’s web site includes a list of current issues in communications accessibility and a helpful “Past, Present, Future” historical overview at; online summary of “History through Deaf Eyes,” a traveling exhibition developed by Gallaudet University, at; Lane, Harlan. When The Mind Hears: A History Of The Deaf (New York: Random House, 1984); Padden, Carol and Tom Humphries. Inside Deaf Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005).]


Posted on September 21, 2006

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