History Through Deaf Eyes – Telephones and TTYs

For decades, telephones were a technology and a convenience that separated deaf people from the rest of society. On the job, for example, many deaf people were denied promotions when positions required the use of a phone.

In 1964, Robert Weitbrecht, a deaf electronic scientist, developed an acoustic coupler that converted sounds into text. Signals received by a standard telephone handset placed on a coupler were translated into a printed text message by the teletype machine. A flashing light alerted the deaf person receiving a call that the phone was ringing.

Access to this telecommunications device, also called a “TTY” or “TDD,” meant deaf people could place a phone call to a friend, a club, or anyone who also had a TTY. Before TTYs, deaf people had to go in person to see if friends were home, make appointments, or do any of the things hearing people did effortlessly by phone. For deaf people, TTYs became a tool for change.

Large teletypewriters eventually were replaced by smaller, more portable models, most with lines of text on a screen along with the printed version.

National Airlines News Bureau, 1979.

A smiling man sits with tele-type with a phone attached to it.

Typing shortcuts such as “GA” for “go ahead” or “it’s your turn,” help to speed up the TTY conversation. Another shortcut “SK,” adopted from train operators, means “send kill” and ends a conversation.

Gallaudet University Archives