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Typewriters and assistive technology for blind and partially sighted people

Published: 28 October 2021

Typewriters are one of the most important and accessible technologies of the 19th century, and they continue to have a huge impact on the way we communicate today. 

For those of us used to computers and other digital technology, the typewriter might seem old-fashioned, slow or difficult to use—but it actually has its roots in ground-breaking accessible technology which not only made correspondence faster and easier, but opened up access to education and communication for blind people.

Here, we’ll explore how various types and styles of typewriters developed, and how the origins of typewriters show that accessible technology is good for everyone.

Underwood 1 Typewriter, 1897

This was the first typewriter with a writing area facing the user and type bars that stay out of sight until a key is struck. These features, shared by all subsequent typewriters, made it easy for the typist to see and correct the typing as they worked. This was the first Underwood typewriter and by the early 1900s Underwood had emerged as the premier typewriter design, most recognised today and most imitated at the time. 
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Underwood 1 Typewriter, 1897<br /> <br /> This was the first typewriter with a writing area facing the user and type bars that stay out of sight until a key is struck. These features, shared by all subsequent typewriters, made it easy for the typist to see and correct the typing as they worked. This was the first Underwood typewriter and by the early 1900s Underwood had emerged as the premier typewriter design, most recognised today and most imitated at the time. 

The origins and inventors of the typewriter

We don’t know exactly when or who invented the first typewriter, but it’s thought that the initial concept emerged in 1714 with a patent written by British engineer Henry Mill for a “Machine for Transcribing Letters”. Only a vaguely worded description of this machine remains and there is no evidence to suggest that Mill, busy with his work as engineer-in-chief of the New River Water Works, went beyond the patent application stage.

...an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another, as in writing, whereby all writings whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print.

Henry Mill, British patent for “Impressing Writing on Parchment &c." (1714)

The next (controversial) contender for the title of first inventor of the typewriter was Italian Pellegrino Turri (1808), who allegedly built a device for his blind lover Countess Fantoni da Fivizzano in order for them to communicate. No drawings of this machine have survived, but in the state archives of Reggio Emilia in Italy there are letters which were written on the device by the Countess. 

Although the evidence around this device is sparse and sometimes conflicting, it’s notable that a device which may be considered the first typewriter was actually designed for a blind person to communicate with.  

Opportunities for blind and partially sighted people would have been limited in the early 1800s, when tools for communication and education were mostly available to the wealthy, who could afford personalised technology or private tutors. However, it was around this time when attitudes began to change—in line with Enlightenment values of improved and increased access to education. Various schools began to spring up throughout Europe, America and other places, where blind and Deaf people were taught to  engage in established or traditional ways of learning such as reading, writing and speaking, so they could communicate more easily with hearing people. Early assistive technologies were important to these efforts.

Victorian typewriters

Reading by touch: Developing tactile communication systems for blind people

Over the past 200 years there have been a variety of different methods used by blind people to learn reading and writing. A popular method that has remained influential is the use of tactile communication systems such as the Frere system and Braille.

The Frere system was developed by James Hatley Frere (1779–1866) before Braille was introduced in the UK. It used a set of embossed graphic signs that represented the 26 sounds of the phonetic system that the method relied on. Although the bi-directional nature of the method meant that reading time was saved, the Frere system was said to inhibit pronunciation and was therefore not widely used. 

'Grammar for the Blind' book in Frere tactile system 1848. The Frere system was a method of teaching developed in the mid-1800s. This teaching aid demonstrates the importance of grammar to written communication.
Science Museum Group More information about &#039;Grammar for the Blind&#039; book in Frere tactile system 1848. The Frere system was a method of teaching developed in the mid-1800s. This teaching aid demonstrates the importance of grammar to written communication.

There are a number of books written in the Frere system in our collection. Many of these books are religious texts, illustrating the importance of religion in education in the 19th century. Children from poor backgrounds were often taught to read and write using the bible, and it follows that education for blind and partially sighted people would also use this method.

Louis Braille is best known for the hugely influential tactile writing system named after him.  The Braille system was inspired by the ‘Night-Writing’ method developed by Charles Barbier, a soldier in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, which allowed soldiers to communicate safely during the night without a light by using a raised twelve-dot system.

Louis Braille developed his own method aged 15, having lost his sight at a young age. Braille is a system in which raised dots in a six-dot cell represent each letter of the alphabet, as well as equivalents for punctuation marks and symbols to show letter groupings, Braille is read by moving your hands from left to right along each line. Despite its contemporary popularity, Braille did not become universal in Louis’ lifetime—he died in 1852 and it was only adopted in France and England in the late 1800s and later worldwide.

Box containing a full alphabet for instruction in Braille and a set of cards and letters for instructing blind and deaf people in Morse. This box of different systems of communication was donated by Lord Algernon Percy, a former military officer and MP who was President of the Warwickshire Association for the Blind (WAB) from its foundation in 1911 until his death in 1933.
Science Museum Group More information about Box containing a full alphabet for instruction in Braille and a set of cards and letters for instructing blind and deaf people in Morse. This box of different systems of communication was donated by Lord Algernon Percy, a former military officer and MP who was President of the Warwickshire Association for the Blind (WAB) from its foundation in 1911 until his death in 1933.

The Braille system has been replaced by the development of accessible digital technologies such as screen readers, but experts still argue for its relevance as a flexible, nuanced and efficient form of communication for blind and partially sighted people.

Typewriters for blind and partially sighted people in the 19th century

By developing writing systems that relied on touch and combining them with technological developments like typewriters, communication was made easier and quicker for everyone, while providing greater autonomy and potential employment opportunities for blind and partially sighted people.

During the 19th century, blind and partially sighted people were largely educated in specific schools that specialised in teaching disabled children. The quality of education provided at these schools varied widely.

Some schools, like Henshaw’s Blind Asylum in Manchester and the Royal Normal College for the Blind (later the Royal National College for the Blind), provided education and, where possible, employment opportunities comparable to their mainstream counterparts, yet remained segregated from mainstream schools. Others, according to the blind activist and surgeon John Bird, were like prisons. Friends with Louis Braille, Bird argued for the improvement of education for blind and Deaf people and rallied for their inclusion in mainstream schools. 

The development of a device that allowed blind and partially sighted people to communicate in written form to those who could see was therefore a huge step forward in gaining greater autonomy and access to a rapidly developing world of communication and technology.  Not only did this create the potential for entering mainstream education, but provided increased opportunities to contribute to a workforce that was becoming increasingly reliant on written communication.

Two different examples of early typewriters for blind and partially sighted people are the Hughes 'Typograph', a pseudo-typewriter designed specifically for blind and partially sighted people first introduced around 1850, and an adapted Hammond typewriter with Braille keys, made around 1895.

Hughes' typograph

Hughes ‘Typograph’, a typewriter for blind people from 1850. Inventor William Hughes described the device as enabling blind people to ‘express their thoughts upon paper with mechanical regularity’ after a few short lessons.
Science Museum Group More information about Hughes ‘Typograph’, a typewriter for blind people from 1850. Inventor William Hughes described the device as enabling blind people to ‘express their thoughts upon paper with mechanical regularity’ after a few short lessons.

Viewed as highly innovative pieces of technology, typewriters were celebrated at the Great Exhibition and World Fairs around the world. Hughes’ ‘Typograph’ was awarded medals at the exhibitions in 1851 and 1862. This machine enabled blind people to write without having to view the keys and instead used raised characters which could be read by touch. 

Hughes’ typograph was one of the more successful early typewriters designed for blind and partially sighted people and was a standard tool in schools such as Henshaw’s Blind Aslyum in Manchester throughout the 1850s. Hughes himself was the first Governor of Henshaw’s, which was founded by Thomas Henshaw to provide sheltered accommodation for elderly blind people as well as education for blind children. At Henshaw’s, blind people could take up training and paid employment in occupations such as music, piano-tuning, manufacturing and braille shorthand and typewriting.

On a visit to Henshaw’s, Queen Victoria was "filled with astonishment and admiration" when a student named Mary Pearson typed the phrase "Her Most Gracious Majesty".

The Hammond typewriter

Hammond Typewriter with braille markings on keys, 1895. This typewriter was evidently intended for use by blind and partially sighted people, as it has Braille markings embossed on the carriage and the marker strip across the platen has the numbers 1 to 9 in Braille which presumably would help in setting tabs. Some of the keys are also fitted with raised pads.
Science Museum Group More information about Hammond Typewriter with braille markings on keys, 1895. This typewriter was evidently intended for use by blind and partially sighted people, as it has Braille markings embossed on the carriage and the marker strip across the platen has the numbers 1 to 9 in Braille which presumably would help in setting tabs. Some of the keys are also fitted with raised pads.

Another tool of communication for blind and partially sighted people was the Hammond Typewriter, the first of which were produced in the early 1880s.  In comparison with the Hughes ‘Typograph’, the Hammond typewriter was  adapted for tactile use rather than a typewriter specifically designed for use by blind and partially sighted people.

By the 1870s and 1880s, typewriters were entering popular usage. James Hammond’s typewriters were popular because of their print quality and the ease with which the typeface was changed.  One adaption, as shown above, was the addition of Braille tactile features as well as a Braille typeface, which meant the Hammond typewriter could be used in the education and employment of blind and partially sighted people.

In 1875, Sir Francis Campbell—co-founder of the Royal National College for the Blind and the first blind person to climb Mont Blanc—visited America, where he observed typewriters coming into general use and quickly realised their potential for the education and employment of female pupils at his college

The Hammond Company and inventor James Hammond donated typewriters to the Royal National College for the Blind, including typewriters for the college's Christmas gifts to students, as well as prizes in contests.

Group of female blind students sit at desks with typewriters. Two men stand in the back corner Courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind Archives
Female students at the Royal Normal College for the Blind in Upper Norwood, England participate in a typing class.

Standing in the back of the classroom in the above photograph are Francis Joseph Campbell and James Hammond, the inventor of the typewriter the students are using.

Initially, typewriting was only taught to blind and partially sighted pupils who might be employed by a relative who employed people in their office, but typewriting soon became  part of the curriculum. Typewriters were used by college pupils for notes, lessons, essays and later for paid employment by pupils.  Later still, other complementary subjects such as tabulating, duplicating and other copying were taught so that pupils would develop skills which enabled them to work in a commercial office.

This was the beginning of new forms of technology being used as part of the education and employment of blind and partially sighted people which continued into the 20th century and through to the present day.

Assistive and accessible technology today

Technological innovation has continued to be important. Inventor and educator Sidney Smith developed technology and teaching tools and programmes for blind and partially sighted people in the 1970s and 1980s. Smith was a teacher in Manchester who worked with the Open University and the department of Trade and Industry to install his devices and training techniques in eight local schools in 1984. 

Smith developed this Braille training computer keyboard to teach Braille to children. The device uses lights as visual aids to provide feedback to the child when writing Braille. This was seen as a simpler way of learning than by using a Braille frame on its own.

Braille training computer keyboard made by Sydney Smith, 1984
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Braille training computer keyboard made by Sydney Smith, 1984
Braille training computer LED visual aids, made by Sydney Smith, 1984
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Braille training computer LED visual aids, made by Sydney Smith, 1984

One of the most influential developments in assistive technologies into the 21st century has been the improvement of accessibility software on computers and other electronic devices. This has included screen readers which use artificial speech to read text out loud, adapted keyboards and voice recognition technologies. Other examples of assistive technologies include video magnifiers which use a camera and a screen to magnify things electronically and reading aids with scanners that use optical character recognition to convert print into electronic text, read by synthetic speech technology. 

Braille is still used to make everyday objects accessible for blind and partially sighted people —for example, the new £10 and £20 notes include braille markings in the top right corner. 

The history of typewriters shows the huge benefits of thinking about the access needs and requirements of every individual at the conception of design, rather than as an afterthought—and that accessible technology is good for everyone.

In striving to create equal opportunities for all, the invention of the typewriter has helped get closer to solving the age-old human problem of how we communicate effectively with each other. 

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