A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell|
As a child, Weitbrecht developed a special interest in astronomy and receiving Morse code signals by feeling vibrations. At 15, he was allowed to connect his own practice oscillator—complete with batteries and a headphone—to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) code-sending machine to demonstrate that he could receive Morse code at 13 words per minute, the time necessary to be eligible for an amateur radio license. A month later, his mother interrupted his class and hand-delivered the license as his classmates looked on. He was officially a “ham.”
Weitbrecht’s interest in science guided both his choice of professions and his hobbies. He began his college career at Santa Ana Junior College in 1938 and then moved on to the University of California at Berkeley, where he received his bachelor’s degree in astronomy with honors in 1942. He worked as a physicist at the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California and as an electronics scientist with the Manhattan Project during the war. In 1949, he was honored with the Superior Accomplishment Award by the US Naval Air Missile Test Center in Point Mugu, California.
Morse code transmitted by radio waves became Weitbrecht’s particular obsession, because it permitted him to communicate with other radio hams despite his deafness. In 1950, he sought to expand this long-distance contact by acquiring a used Model 12 “receive only” teletypewriter, usually called a TTY, from a Los Angeles newspaper plant. With the new machine, he could receive radioteletype communications from Japan, the Philippine Islands, Australia, South America, and many places in the U.S.
But it was not long before he realized that receiving radioteletype messages was not enough to satisfy him. He also wanted to send his own. He searched for six months and finally procured a keyboard from an East Coast ham. Using a string around the gear and the shaft of an old washing machine motor, he managed to adjust the speed until the keyboard worked. He had his first “send and receive” teleprinter outfit. This was the first time Weitbrecht had full visual access to long-distance radio communications. Prophetically, he wrote in RTTY magazine that “RTTY. . . . is now an important and growing facet of Amateur Radio, with untold possibilities for communications purposes.”