Braillewriters: Assistive Devices at the Fin de siècle

Picht braillewriter, CSTM artifact no. 1987.0263.001

Picht Braille-writer, c.1900

Text adapted from "Envisioning Technologies: Historical Insights into Educational Technologies for People who are Blind or Partially Sighted in Canada, 1890-Present."

 

Braille would continue to influence the lives of people who were blind or partially sighted in Canada and elsewhere, while shaping the design of numerous assistive technologies from the nineteenth to twentieth-century. One such device was the braillewriter. Although this device was first developed in the United States, it would soon have a global impact.[1] One example of the various models that emerged was the Picht braillewriter, first developed by Oscar Picht, director of the Provincial School for the Blind in Bromberg, Germany, and later director of the State Blind Institute Berlin-Steglitz. The Picht brailler was first manufactured in 1899 by the company B.R. Herde and F.R. Wendt, and continued production until the 1930s.[2]

The Picht brailler featured here was built approximately 1900. It is made of black metal with a painted wood keyboard, also black except for the six wooden keys that are painted white on their top surface. The Picht is of an asymmetrical shape that flares out toward the keyboard. “Picht” is painted in gold lettering on the front, above the keys. Like other braillers of its kind, the machine consists of six keys on each end that progress from long to short as you move to the centre of the board, where a single oval space bar juts outward in between. The three left keys correspond to dots one, two and three in a braille cell. Meanwhile, the three keys on the right correspond to four, five and six. The Picht has a metal gooseneck, which arches over the device and down to where the paper feeds through the rolls. This gooseneck has six small holes in the end, mirroring the six dot pattern in braille.[3]   

As Norman Ball has written, the design of the braillewriter was largely inspired by the typewriter—an invention that had become widely popular by the late nineteenth century and used in many schools in Europe and across North America, including the Ontario Institute for the Blind (OIB) in Canada.[4] Although typewriters were introduced with a desire to widen employment opportunities for graduates, their design made it impractical for students at the OIB and elsewhere. Typewriters were built, after all, with sighted users in mind. Those who were blind or partially sighted therefore had to work much more diligently to operate a machine that did not take their needs or capabilities into account. The braillewriter would change all of this, however, making it possible for students to write and correspond at a speed unheard of until that time.[5]


[1] For more on the history of the first model of braillewriter, developed by Frank Hall, see Norman Ball’s “A Most Unusual Innovator: Frank H. Hall,” a paper he gave at the international conference “Blind Creations” in June 2015. Many thanks to Dr. Ball for making this paper available for our project. 

[2] Picht braillewriter, artifact no. 1987.0263.001, Collections Supplementary Report, Canadian Science and Technology Museum, Ottawa, Ontario

[3] The Picht braillewriter and some of the supplementary information can be retrieved through the museum’s online collections here: http://techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/collection-item.php?id=1987.0263.001

[4] Ball, “A Most Unusual Innovator: Frank H. Hall,” 7.

[5] Ernst  P. Hamm, “Printing, Patronage and Paternalism: Technological Choice and the Introduction of Braille at the Ontario Institution for the Blind,” National Museum of Science and Technology (July 1987), 26-27.