Photograph of a blind man reading a book using the Optophone c.1921.

Photograph of a blind man reading a book using the Optophone c.1921. Wellcome Library, London.

Mechanical reading devices have helped blind people to read ordinary print since before the First World War.

The optophone was invented in 1913 by Dr E.E. Fournier d’Albe, a lecturer in Physics at the University of Birmingham. This device translated the printed page into sound. Reflected light from the machine’s selenium cells produced musical tones corresponding to the typed letters on a page. Fournier d’Albe claimed that the device would ‘enable totally blind persons to read ordinary books and newspapers through the sense of hearing.’

The optophone’s light beam scanned the lines of a book placed upside down on a curved glass frame and emitted different tones depending on a letter’s shape. The device was too complicated for most people, however, and little was heard from the optophone after 1924.

 

Optophone reading machine.

Optophone held by Blind Veterans UK Collections and Archives.

Image of Mary Jameson using the optophone reading machine to read Anthony Trollope’s The Warden.

Mary Jameson using the optophone to read Anthony Trollope’s The Warden. Blind Veterans UK Collections and Archives.

Mary Jameson, who was blind from birth and graduated from Norwood’s Royal Normal College for the Blind, was one of the first people to use the optophone. In 1918, she gave public demonstrations during which she read a book’s page at the rate of approximately one word per minute. She was able to read 20-60 words per minute on improved models and became the first blind person to read from an ordinary printed book: Anthony Trollope’s The Warden.

 

Hear the Optophone:

The following tones represent the letters f, i, k, j, p, q, r, z as recorded by physicist Patrick Nye in 1965:

Courtesy of Patrick Nye. Our thanks to Carol Fowler at Haskins Laboratories for providing access to the recording. (Correction: The video mistakenly thanks Elaine Nye of Haskins for the recording; that acknowledgement should have been made to Carol Fowler instead.)

Nye’s research is described in the following report held by Haskins Laboratories: An Investigation of Audio Outputs for a Reading Machine (1965).

 

Watch a Video:

Matthew Rubery discusses the optophone in this short video:

 

Another device called the Optacon translates print into a vibrating tactile image. Its main unit contains a ‘tactile array’ onto which the user places his or her index finger. The user’s other hand moves a miniature camera across lines of print. A matrix of tiny pins vibrates in the shape of letters beneath the user’s fingertip as the camera scans the page.

John Linvill, a Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, developed the machine for his daughter, who had been blind since the age of three. Telesensory Systems Inc. began manufacturing the Optacon in 1971 and made it available for testing at St. Dunstan’s. Private individuals purchased approximately 15,000 Optacons. Although most people now prefer to use page scanners with optical character recognition (OCR), a number of blind people continue to use the Optacon to this day.

 

Color photograph of an Optacon reading device.

Optacon belonging to Peter Bosher, one of the first people in the UK trained to use the device in 1976.

The Optacon enabled blind people to read by scanning printed letters and converting them into tactile forms. The writer Deborah Kent Stein recalls: ‘As soon as I began using the Optacon, I made startling discoveries. I learned that italicized letters are slightly tilted, that chapter titles are sometimes offset with wavy lines or curlicues, that Penguin Books uses a tiny penguin logo. . . . I had survived very nicely without knowing these things. Still, such details are an integral part of the world of print—the world from which most people gather so much information and pleasure.’

Photograph of Candy Linville demonstrating the Optacon at St. Dunstan’s.

Photograph of Candy Linville demonstrating the Optacon at St. Dunstan’s. Blind Veterans UK Collections and Archives.

 

Further Info:

Mary Jameson, ‘The Optophone: Its Beginning and Development’ (PDF)

Michael Capp and Phil Picton, ‘The Optophone: An Electronic Blind Aid’, Engineering Science and Education Journal 9.3 (June 2000): 137-143. [Link]

Mara Mills, ‘Optophones and Musical Print’, Sounding Out! (January 5, 2015) [Link]

‘The Optacon Story’ is a 16 mm film produced in the early 1970s for Telesensory Systems, Inc. [Video]

Deborah Kent Stein, ‘The Optacon: Past, Present, and Future’ [Link]

Deborah Kendrick, ‘From Optacon to Oblivion: The Telesensory Story’, AccessWorld Magazine 6.4 (July 2005) [Link]