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A Phone of Our Own

The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell

Harry G. Lang

Publication Year: 2000

In 1964, of the more than 85 million telephones in the United States and Canada, less than one percent were used regularly by deaf people. If they didn’t ask their hearing neighbors for help, they depended upon their hearing children, some as young as three years old, to act as intermediaries for business calls or medical consultations. In that same year, three enterprising deaf men, Robert H. Weitbrecht, James C. Marsters, and Andrew Saks, started the process that led to deaf people around the world having an affordable phone system that they could use. Weitbrecht, a successful physicist with the Stanford Research Institute, had been experimenting with a teletypewriter (TTY) used with shortwave radios. When Marsters, a prominent deaf orthodontist, met Weitbrecht and saw his TTY, he immediately suggested the possibility of resolving deaf people’s decades-long struggle to have access to telecommunications without relying totally upon hearing people as go-betweens. Andrew Saks brought his business acumen to the group, which soon set to work overcoming the daunting problems they faced. Harry Lang’s A Phone of Their Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell tells how these three men collaborated to solve the technical difficulties of developing a coupling device for TTYs that would translate sounds into discernible letters. More remarkably, and with the help of an expanding corps of Deaf advocates, they successfully assaulted the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), which in its efforts to protect its monopoly, smashed old TTYs to keep them from being used for potentially competitive purposes. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also resisted efforts to build a telephone system for deaf people that was available, affordable, portable, and fully accessible. Lang recounts in vivid terms how many other Deaf individuals and groups from all walks of life joined Weitbrecht, Marsters, and Saks against these forces. A Phone of Their Own is an entertaining and engrossing story of how they fought and won, and changed the world for the better for deaf people everywhere.

Published by: Gallaudet University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xi

In the late 1960s, the deaf community made a historical breakthrough in the world of telecommunications with the introduction of teletypewriters (TTYs) with acoustic couplers. This technology helped us gain access to the regular telephone network some ninety years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the voice telephone. Despite the ...

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pp. xiii-xv

I am deeply grateful to Dr. James C. Marsters, one of the three original deaf partners in the Applied Communications Corporation, who provided boxes of historical materials and generous financial support for my research for this book. It was Jim, a true Renaissance man, who had the vision to integrate the different talents of the three original ...

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pp. 1-8

For nearly a century after the advent of the voice telephone, we deaf people were without a phone of our own. We had to carefully plan visits, vacations, and business transactions. Conducting even basic daily exchanges was a difficult chore. A last-minute change in plans for a meeting, for example, presented special problems. Hearing ...

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1. A Chance Encounter

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pp. 9-20

On April 11, 1963, deaf physicist Robert Haig Weitbrecht turned forty-three 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 ...

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2. Up the Mountainside

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pp. 21-29

After numerous conversations with Marsters and Saks, Weitbrecht evaluated the general obstacles he faced in developing a telephone device that deaf people could use - one based on visual communication. He believed that an acoustic coupler used with the TTY was probably the best idea to pursue, but first he had to review other ...

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3. Something Old, Something New

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pp. 30-45

The marriage of the older TTY to the new acoustic coupler was the crux of Weitbrecht's design for a visual telephone device. He planned to develop a coupler that would produce a different audio signal as each key on the teletypewriter was pressed. Typing a single letter on the keyboard would "modulate" the signal to be transmitted by adding ...

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4. The Corporate Windmill

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pp. 46-56

AT&T was not likely to be enthusiastic about the telephone for deaf people proposed by Weitbrecht, Marsters, and Saks. Despite Weitbrecht's efforts to develop an acoustic coupler that would not conflict with AT&T's rules, the phone company remained concerned about "foreign attachments" (non-Bell equipment) introducing interference ...

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5. The Frustration Grows

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pp. 57-78

The Robert H. Weitbrecht Company partners were not alone in their disappointment with the telephone companies, of which there were about two thousand in the mid-1960s. Not all were part of the nationwide Bell Telephone System, but none made any effort to help profoundly deaf people access telecommunications. The TTY ...

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6. Teletypewriters for the Deaf, Inc.

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pp. 79-94

With the Carterfone case finally settled, Marsters recommended that a separate organization be established to locate, recondition, and distribute AT&T's surplus TTYs. On February 20, 1968, AT&T released the first batch-200 TTYs-making distribution an immediate priority. George W. Fellendorf and Joseph Wiedenmayer of the A. G. ...

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7. Change Agents

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pp. 95-115

During the early years of their collaboration, the APCOM partners had remarkable stamina despite pressure from many directions. Marsters and Saks were living fulfilling personal lives with a wide circle of friends and involvement in a variety of community and social affairs. James and Alice Marsters were raising three children; Andrew and ...

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8. The Modem War

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pp. 116-129

In October 1970, ESSCO Communications began marketing the ATC-2, a second modem for the TTY network. The following month, The Silent News, a national newspaper for the American deaf community, brazenly announced, "N.J. Firm Patents TTY Terminal Unit; Costs $100 less than Rival." The Modem War had begun. ...

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9. Foreign Affairs

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pp. 130-137

Weitbrecht, Marsters, and Saks envisioned a time when telephone access for deaf people would be worldwide. Marsters had taken the first steps when he had introduced the modem and TTY to England and continental Europe on a tour with his family in 1966. By the early 1970s, more efforts were underway, and they highlighted many of the ...

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10. Revolutions

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pp. 138-153

The first decade of TTY development was marked by incremental progress against great odds. By 1973, only a few thousand TTYs were in use for the estimated 13 million Americans with hearing loss. Many deaf people were still unaccustomed to using the telephone almost a decade after the development of the Phonetype modem. People ...

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11. Bridges

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pp. 154-167

On May 13, 1975, Weitbrecht was delighted to participate in the first authorized transatlantic TTY call using the modem he had developed. Finally, nearly two decades after the first transatlantic telephone cable was laid and more than a decade after the Phonetype for deaf people was developed, the FCC had granted AT&T temporary ...

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12. Changing of the Guard

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pp. 168-181

The early months of 1979 were plagued with personal crises for Weitbrecht. He mailed more letters to the University of California complaining about his earlier employment experiences there. He wrote to Marsters his neighbors were complaining about the ham antenna on his property because it interfered with local radio reception. The ...

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13. Legacy

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pp. 182-196

Three of the four goals established by Marsters, Weitbrecht, and Saks had been met by the time Weitbrecht died in 1983. Mass marketing of compact telecommunications devices provided availability, portability, and affordability. The APCOM partners had also left the deaf community a legacy of self-advocacy, embodied by their example, the ...

APPENDIX: A Concise History of the TTY

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pp. 197-204


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pp. 205-218


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pp. 219-230


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pp. 231-242

E-ISBN-13: 9781563680908
E-ISBN-10: 1563680904
Print-ISBN-13: 9781563681547
Print-ISBN-10: 1563681544

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 112 photographs
Publication Year: 2000

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American Telephone and Telegraph Company.
  • Telecommunications devices for the deaf -- United States -- History.
  • Telephone -- United States -- Emergency reporting systems -- History.
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