The Perkins Brailler: A "Premiere" Machine, 1941-1951

Perkins Brailler

Perkins Brailler, c.1951

Braillewriters continued to be influential machines throughout the twentieth century. The most enduring innovation, in fact, would not come until mid-century with the advent of the “Perkins Brailler”—a technology that is still used by many within Canada and around the world. Like many other braillewriters, the device was an import. It originated from the United States, and specifically the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Perkins was and is one of the most widely known schools of its kind. Throughout its history, Perkins has been a global leader in providing education for people who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted.[1] At the turn of the twentieth-century, the school quickly adopted the use of the braillewriter and began producing models of its own in its in-house printing house, Howe Press. This production ceased, however, in 1931, when a new school director, Dr. Gabriel Farrell, deemed the machines produced by Howe Press inadequate.[2]

Approximately two years later, Farrell hired a new teacher, David Abraham. Abraham originally came from Liverpool, England, where he had worked for many years in his father’s stair rail manufacturing business.  He and his young family moved to the United States for greater opportunity—an ambition thwarted by the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929.  While working on a road crew near Perkins, Abraham came across an opportunity to teach with the School largely by chance. He began teaching woodworking and mechanics, and was soon recognized as someone with extraordinary skill.

Farrell tasked Abraham with designing a new, more efficient braillewriter and by 1941 Abraham succeeded in producing a prototype of what would become the now famous Perkins Braillewriter. This braillewriter was a significant improvement over what had come before—the six keys only required a light touch so that it could be used by the very young, it was sturdy, quiet, easy to operate and produced more refined results than any other braillewriter made up until this time.

Largely due to the war and limited funds, almost a decade would pass before the new brailler went into official production. When the machine finally hit the market in 1951, however, Howe Press could hardly keep up with the orders and the Perkins Brailler was heralded as a success. The machine is still sold today throughout the United States, Canada and far beyond. [3]

The Perkins brailler, pictured here, has reportedly changed very little since Abraham’s first prototype in 1941. This model is silver-grey in colour, rectangular in shape and weighs about ten pounds. It has six keys with a space bar in between, much like earlier braillers. On the left and right of these keys are two identical, rounded black knobs that are used for feeding the paper into the machine. Above the keys is the raised Perkins logo and a narrow shelf, directly below a rectangular gap. Jutting out from the gap is a cup-shaped handle that is used to move the carriage. At the back of the machine where the paper is fed, there are two silver, flat tabs with rounded edges that serve as release levers. Unlike other braillers, the carriage is encased within the machine, making it more durable and less prone to disrepair.[4]  This machine belongs to and continues to be sold by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind at its Ottawa office.     



[1] This is especially the case with the establishment of Perkins International in 1989—a branch of the institution that advocates for and provides services for clients around the world For more information about Perkins International, see its website: http://www.perkins.org/international

[2] Jan Seymour-Ford, “History of the Perkins Brailler,” Watertown: Perkins School for the Blind, 2002.

[3] Jan Seymour-Ford, “Story of the Perkins Brailler, Watertown: Perkins School for the Blind, 2009.

[4] To learn more about the Perkins brailler, the school and Howe Press, see Edward J. Waterhouse, The History of the Howe Press of Perkins School for the Blind (Waterhouse, Mass: The Howe Press of Perkins School for the Blind, 1975).  

The Perkins Brailler: A "Premiere" Machine, 1941-1951