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Wednesday, August 1, 2001

A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell by Harry G. Lang

A Fascinating Account of the TTY Story

Gallaudet University Press · 2000 · 242 pages · $29.95

Reviewed by Andrew P. Morriss

In A Phone of Our Own, Professor Harry Lang (National Technical Institute for the Deaf) provides an accessible, thoroughly researched history of the development of the TTY (teletype) system used by the hearing-impaired to communicate over telephone lines. Relying on interviews, surviving TTY transcripts of early conversations, and TTY-pioneers’ papers, he provides a compelling business history of the TTY industry. Lang, who is hearing-impaired, also provides a fascinating glimpse into the politics of disability-rights activism.

The story of the development of TTY service for the deaf is largely that of a remarkable partnership among three deaf men. Robert H. Weitbrecht, an engineer in California, began using TTY equipment with his ham radio in the 1950s. James C. Marsters, a California orthodontist, and Andrew Saks, another engineer, met Weitbrecht and discovered a shared interest in making telecommunications available to the deaf. The three patched together a preliminary TTY system, using cast-off equipment and considerable ingenuity.

The TTY pioneers struggled to persuade phone companies to donate or sell them equipment and to persuade deaf individuals to accept the bulky TTY terminals. Lang’s account makes clear that one of the most significant obstacles was AT&T’s monopoly of the telephone network. The TTY pioneers were forced to use an acoustic coupler, for example, rather than a direct connection to the phone lines. Even though acoustic couplers caused several technical problems, AT&T’s threat to cut off service to anyone attaching a modem directly to the phone lines ruled out the technologically superior solution.

Despite their engineering brilliance, the three were less successful as businessmen. Although the potential unserved market was large, they were unable to turn a profit. Why? Three factors stand out in Lang’s account, although he does not adequately synthesize them. First, as the holder of a government-sanctioned monopoly, AT&T had a lack of interest that posed an almost insurmountable hurdle. Although Lang often expresses amazement at AT&T’s position, the company’s attitude will come as no surprise to those familiar with economic theory. As Sir John Hicks wrote, “the best of all monopoly profits is a quiet life.” Monopolies stifle innovation; competition produces innovation.

Second, the TTY pioneers became ensnared in disputes within the deaf community between advocates of lip reading and sign language. One prominent group of deaf activists, for example, resisted supporting the TTY system because it did not fit their organizational goals of “promotion of lipreading, speech reading, and utilization of the residual hearing of the deaf.” Third, and most distressingly, the men diverted their efforts into political lobbying because that was how they hoped to get AT&T to react and because they believed that telecommunication was a “right” that required state action.

Indeed, throughout the book libertarian readers will find themselves engaged in an intellectual game of “Where’s Waldo?” In that successful children’s book series, the aim is to spot the figure of Waldo in his distinctive red-and-white striped shirt amongst the distracting details of drawings of circuses, city streets, and the like. Similarly, readers familiar with the imperfections of government-sanctioned monopolies and centralized command-and-control regulatory regimes will find themselves spotting the quite visible hand of government behind the obstacles that frustrate the TTY pioneers, but which is obscured for the general reader by the mass of details of the daily struggle of the three pioneers.

Unfortunately the book also occasionally falls into the cult of the victim. For example, Lang notes that telephone pioneer Elisha Gray, who lost the patent rights to the telephone to Alexander Graham Bell, had developed a “Telautograph” for the 1893 World’s Fair. This allowed messages handwritten at one end to be reproduced at the other end. The Telautograph failed despite its advantages for the deaf, Lang explains, because “hearing people controlled the telephone industry, and they had grown accustomed to the voice telephone.” Is there any doubt that the voice telephone is immeasurably more useful than the “Telautograph” could ever have been? “Control” of the market played no role; demand for the better service did.

Lang has written a fascinating account of the TTY story. The book’s weaknesses stem from its attempt to reshape a story of the evils of regulated monopolies into one about the need for government action to ensure “equitable” prices and services. The facts of the TTY story are sufficiently clear, however, to tell the monopoly story on their own, and Lang’s clear prose makes the story of the men who struggled to establish the TTY system come alive.

  • Andrew P. Morriss is the D. Paul Jones, Jr. & Charlene A. Jones Chairholder in Law and Professor of Business at the University of Alabama. He is coeditor (with Roger E. Meiners and Pierre Desrochers) of Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson, forthcoming from the Cato Institute.