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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell
Harry G. Lang

Chapter One
A Chance Encounter

“The telephone companies have not offered anything at realistic rates to deaf people, so some of us had to ‘go at it’ on our own to develop a suitable communication device using . . . cast-off teleprinters.”
Robert H. Weitbrecht, personal communication to Freeman Lang,
September 15, 1966

On April 11, 1963, deaf physicist Robert Haig Weitbrecht turned 43 years old. He was living in the hills west of Redwood City, California, in a new two-bedroom duplex on Woodside Road. Weitbrecht had converted a bedroom into a radio “ham shack,” and his living room was strewn with radio equipment, electrical meters, boxes of electronic parts, and books. Scattered around his bedroom were issues of RTTY magazine, a periodical for radioteletype users. A few months after his birthday, Weitbrecht’s chance encounter with the father of a deaf child would change deaf people’s lives forever.

Weitbrecht was an unlikely person to become a hero for the American deaf community. For much of his life, he had stayed apart from deaf people, socializing with them infrequently, perhaps because of an overprotective mother and memories of childhood teasing about his deafness. But his parents had nurtured in him a love of science, and this fascination was compelling throughout his life. It was also essential to his success in developing the telephone acoustic coupler.

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