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Deaf History - History of the TTY

Still an Essential Communications Tool

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Updated September 29, 2010

They have largely been replaced by email, text pagers, and other modern forms of communication, but the basic TTY is still around.

Origins

A deaf scientist, Robert Weitbrecht, is credited with the development of the TTY in the 1960s. The earliest TTYs were huge hunks of metal with printer paper coming out of them. I remember seeing one in the home of a family friend in the early '70s. and being quite impressed. These early TTYs are now antique, and can only be found in places such as the Smithsonian.

The cost was also a barrier that prevented the TTY from gaining widespread use and acceptance more quickly. I did not get one myself until the early 80s. Today, TTYs are available in a variety of models, from the most basic and inexpensive to highly sophisicated, computer-like models and compact, pocket-sized TTYs.

Books and publications

  • TDI, an organization that publishes an international "blue book" directory of TTY numbers, has published a cartoon history of the TTY, "One Thing Led to the Next, The Real History of TTYs." This publication can be purchased by submitting an order form.
  • "A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell" - This book gives the full history of the development of the TTY, complete with the obstacles it had to overcome in order to come into existence.

Problems

The TTY has been plagued by problems:

  • Confusion over the proper terminology. Over the years, the TTY has also been known as a TDD. Was it a telephone typewriter for the deaf, a text telephone, or a telecommunications device for the deaf? Finally the TDI settled the issue by deciding that the proper term was TTY.
  • Its technology has been said to be old and incompatible with modern communications techology, such as computer modems.
  • Compatibility problems with competing TTY manufacturers. I can recall the frustrations of trying to hold conversations with friends whose TTYs were different from mine.
  • Lack of awareness of TTYs in the hearing world. Ask the average hearing person on the street "Do you know what a TTY is" and the answer is likely to be "huh?"
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