Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Typewriters for Good: David Abraham and the Perkins

UPDATE: I seem to have forgotten a section I typed about the Foundation Writer. You will find more about this Brailler below.

Robert's fantastic post about the Hall typewriter really inspired this post. The question I had was simple; are there any tactile typewriters on this campus?
My first phone call was to Aileen, the Vision Specialist department chair. She said there are two students who use Braillers in-class and several other machines stationed around campus.

This morning I took a few minutes to stop by and see these interesting type-writers. Eve, one of the teachers who instructs students on their Braining, gave me a brief tutorial on how the machine works and some of the features it has.

In the short time I was working with these machines I realized how similar and how different they are to regular sighted typewriters. Simultaneously they are familiar and foreign.

Before I talk more about their operation I should talk about the brand of Brailler Alhambra students use. It's called the Perkins Brailler and it is a de-facto standard for non-sighted writing. The Perkins Brailler has an interesting history of its own.

Abraham was hired and his experience with mechanics (gained during the war) became well known to the administrators of the school. It was shortly after this that In conjunction with a math teacher at the school, Abraham was asked to address the problems Howe Press (Perkins' publishing house) was having with the Foundation Writer.

The Foundation Writer. This Brailler had a moveable carriage
which often caused alignment issues. Also, there were far too
many sticky-outy parts.

The embosser head. Pins from beneath the armiture press into
the paper to make a Braille impression

Eve demonstrating the unique process of rolling the paper into the machine.

Only sixty machines were delivered in the first year of production. The next year it was 800. The year after that; a thousand.
A young Perkins learner.

The Perkins Brailler was a success. It quickly became the standard for Braillers in American schools. Abraham himself gave the blind their own pen and pencil.
Children in Keyna learning on Perkins machines.

Today the Perkins Brailler is still made. There are new versions having USB connectivity and LCD screens, but the technology has remained in constant production.

The American Printing House for the Blind's version. Same as Howe's, but with a
lighter touch, high-contrast color, and longer keytops.

To finish out this Post, I wanted to share one of the good things about working with kids. Eva works with a very special student who is learning both Braille and English at the same time.

Her name is Meherta and she comes from Eretria, Africa. From everything I have heard she is excelling at both English and Braille. Her story is such a positive one that it makes me believe that so many good thingscan come from typewriters.


  1. Very interesting -- I've often seen Perkins braillers for sale on eBay but didn't understand their history or mechanism at all.

  2. A fellow student in college -- another computer science major -- had a Perkins and was a regular fixture in the front corner desk of our shared classes. (He joked he sat there to see the board better.) All his in-class note-taking was done on the Brailler, and he had a screen-reader for hid PC in his dorm, and ultimately a line display that would allow him to scroll up and down on screen, raising or lowering Braille pins in an electronic bar that rested between him and the keyboard.

    Needless to say, he was an excellent touch-typist!

  3. Nice post. It is good to know some of the history behind the brailler. I never knew much about them except they printed braille.

    I went through high school with a fellow who used one. I was always fascinated at how fast he could type and keep up with anything that was said and at the quietness of the machine.

  4. Great to hear about these machines- I've heard about them, but have never experienced them in any way myself. Also a great way to include learners with exceptionalities if typewriters are being used in the classroom- it's a great way to make sure no one feels excluded. Great post.

  5. I've enjoyed reading this. And I love that photo of the Young Perkins Learner!

    Where I work, I'm yet to see one of these in use with the children we look after. But just reading this has given me some ideas. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I see these come up every so often. Very interesting post - thanks for the detail.