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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
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Something else in the room caught Marsters’s attention. It was a TTY connected to a private telephone line. In the early days of amateur RTTY, “on-the-air” roundtable discussions were popular. Groups of friends would gather almost nightly on a particular frequency. After making some remarks, each operator would indicate which station was going to transmit next and then turn the send-receive switch to receive. It was also customary to allow a slight pause before transmitting in case some newcomer wanted to join the discussion. Weitbrecht explained to Marsters that he was experimenting with attaching a switch to the teleprinter keyboard that would turn the transmitter on when any key was struck. This would make such conversation easier by eliminating the separate send and receive steps. The sending operator could type as much as he wished, then simply pause to allow the transmitter to automatically turn off so that someone else could send. Weitbrecht and his hearing friends within the San Francisco Bay area also conversed over TTYs connected directly to the private telephone line. He had been using both ham radio and the telephone for some time, and he showed Marsters some of the printed phone conversations.

Marsters saw in the private telephone line setup the germ of an invention that might fulfill his dream of more than twenty years. After returning home to Pasadena, he thought a great deal about it. If two people could communicate with TTYs through radio transmission or over the telephone lines in a local circuit, then why could they not do so over any telephone line? Regular radioteletype might be successful for some, but there were too many deaf people who did not have the time, money, or interest to acquire a radio license. He wrote to Weitbrecht on April 26, 1964, and planted the idea of a national network of TTYs for deaf people—one that would also be designed by deaf people: “What I have in mind, Bob, is the possibility of a network of regular telephone line RTTY for deaf people who can afford one . . . . but not to lease one via the telephone company nor a special telephone line . . . . why won’t it be possible to translate over the regular line by proper modification of equipment . . . . granted that eventually there will be enough units? . . . . What do you think?”

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