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HIST 330: Deafness and Technology: Overview

This guide discusses some Deaf technologies that DHH people used in the past and use today.


Hi, I'm Joan Naturale, and you can make an appointment with me to review sources for your research topic. The appointment calendar shows you my availability, and I get an e-mail. We can meet via Zoom to discuss your topic. I am generally available Mon-Fri from 9-5 outside of meetings, appointments, and classes. View a video explaining this InfoGuide.

This is your assignment for HIST 330 from your professor, Corinna Hill.  At the end of the semester, you will hand in a research paper, 8 to 10 pages in length. You can also deliver your content in ASL, using a YouTube video, please contact me if you decide to do a video. This research project asks you to build on what you have learned throughout the semester to research and analyze one Deaf-related technology invented before the year 2010. Pick one specific technological device or medium (ie: FM systems, virtual reality, video relay services, closed captioning, Auto Speech Recognition, what have you) and research the technology. Pick a device that personally interests you and makes you want to learn more about it. Your paper must answer these following questions: Who invented this technology? A hearing or deaf person? When and where was it invented? How does this device work? Is this device still in use today? If yes, explain why it is still popular. If not, explain why it has fallen out of use and if it has been replaced with another device? What is the impact of the device on the Deaf community? How did/does this device shape a Deaf person’s access to the world? Would you argue that this technology is emancipatory for the Deaf person, or is it assimilatory? Or, can it be both? Your paper is due on April 28.

This guide provides an overview of the technology that DHH people used in the past and what they use today. Not surprisingly, DHH people have had to be creative in finding ways to communicate with the hearing world, and have invented technologies that benefit not only DHH people, but also hearing people. It is interesting to note that either Deaf people or hearing people connected with Deaf people invented many of the communications technologies we used in the past or use today.

For example, Samuel Morse invented the telegraph and had a Deaf 2nd wife, Sarah Elizabeth Griswold who helped him to create the Morse code. He often conversed with his wife tapping out the Morse code in her hand. His business partner was Amos Kendall (Postmaster-General) whose estate became Gallaudet University. The first long-distance telegraphic transmission traveled through Amos Kendall's estate from the Supreme Court on its way to Baltimore.

Edison (Deaf) improved the telephone and the telegraph, invented the light bulb, the phonograph, and the 'talkies' movies,  ending the silent film era which captivated the Deaf community. Edison also communicated in Morse code with his wife and nicknamed his first child, a girl, Dot, and his second child, a son, Dash (Adkins, 2009).

Alexander Graham Bell had a Deaf mother and wife. His original intent of inventing the telephone was to improve communications for the Deaf. Instead, it became a barrier for many Deaf in the employment world.

Vint Cerf (HH), known as one of the "Fathers of the Internet" is a VP at Google and is the co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the Internet. His work led to e-mail as he was looking for a convenient way for Deaf people to communicate. The analog to digital movement has affected many of our products and services today. Check out The Internet: A Historical Encyclopedia for more information about the history of the Internet, and biographies of key figures.

Deaf inventors developed the TTY, and light flash, amplification, and vibration signalers to help Deaf people be aware of the doorbell, phone, alarm clock, fire/smoke, and baby cries. Some devices have all options available for the Deaf user. A number of Deaf people invented these light signalers. William Shaw designed these signalers in the 1900s. His work drew the attention of Alexander G. Bell and Thomas Edison (Liss, 2009). Emerson Romero (Deaf) invented captions when the 'talkies' arrived.  Emerson Romero developed some of these devices and had a business selling them (Gannon, 2012, p. 170).

The first TTY modem was invented by Robert H. Weibrecht (Deaf) in 1964. He and Dr. James C. Marsters (Deaf) made history with the first long-distance TTY phone call between two Deaf persons using a regular telephone line. Dr, Harry Lang donated this TTY modem which is located at the RIT ASL and Deaf Studies Community Center (RADSCC). Robert H. Weibrecht studied the Morse Code as a teen and received a ham radio license. Use the RIT Libraries Catalog below to search for encyclopedias and technology or related books.

A good reference source is Science and Technology in 20th Century Life. Use the Gallaudet Encyclopedia and the Sage Deaf Studies Encyclopedia to find more information. 

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