Robert Weitbrecht: Inventor of the Telephone Typewriter

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Before we had instant messaging, Skype, and texting, hearing impaired people had to rely on a device called the telephone typewriter, or TTY. The TTY came into being because of a deaf man named Robert Weitbrecht, the device’s inventor.

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Life

Weitbrecht was born in 1920 and died in 1983. Born deaf, he had difficulty learning to talk and was teased for his disability. He grew up to become an astronomer, physicist, and a licensed ham radio operator. Many people don’t know that he also worked on the Manhattan project and invented the Geiger counter to measure radioactivity. However, it was his experience as a ham radio operator that led to the development of the TTY.

The TTY

Weitbrecht developed an interest in Morse code, as it allowed him to communicate with hearing people via radio. In 1950, he obtained a radio teletypewriter that was only capable of receiving messages. It could not be used with a regular telephone. Weitbrecht was able to modify this radio teletypewriter so that it could send messages, too.

Deaf people who knew about Weitbrecht’s work asked him to fix the radio teletypewriter so it could be used on a regular phone line. After years of work, Weitbrecht finally succeeded in 1964. He developed an acoustic coupler that allowed the use of the telephone with the TTY. In May of that year, Weitbrecht made the first long-distance call with a TTY between two deaf people on a regular phone line. Further refinement of the technology resulted in the Weitbrecht Modem.

Legacy

Weitbrecht Communications, a distributor of assistive listening devices, TTYs, and other equipment was named in his honor.

The deaf telecommunications organization TDI awards the Robert H. Weitbrecht Telecommunications Access Award to people who make a major difference in media and telecommunications accessibility.

Documents

Gallaudet University’s archives hold some of Weitbrecht’s papers, including instructions for the use of teleprinter equipment over the telephone line. The archives also hold clippings about Weitbrecht, correspondence between the inventor and his collaborators, and archival photographs.

Articles About Robert Weitbrecht

In addition to the sources listed below, the following books have articles on Weitbrecht:

  • Great Deaf Americans: the second edition by Matthew S. Moore and Robert F. Panara. Chapter 24 is about Robert Weitbrecht.
  • Discoveries: Significant Contributions of Deaf Women and Men by Anita P. Davis, Katharine S. Preston. Published 1996.
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