James Swail (1924-2005)

James Swail c. 1969 with punch-card reader

James Swail demonstrates his manually-operated punch card reader (c.1969), NRC Library and Archives


Dr. James Swail (1924-2005) was a researcher with the Radio and Electrical Engineering Division of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) from 1947-1985. He became blind at the age of four after an automobile accident and from thereon would overcome a multitude of obstacles to achieve his goals. Disallowed from performing the required laboratory work for chemistry as a high school student, he built his own laboratory at his parents’ home. By taking this initiative, he prepared himself to be accepted into McGill University, where he graduated from a Bachelor of Science with distinction in 1946.[1] The very next year, he was hired as a researcher with the NRC. This would begin his career with the NRC, which would last for almost forty years.

In 1962, Dr. James Swail wrote “With the possible exception of Braille, electronics has done more than any other field of technology to free the blind from dependence on sighted helpers… many adapted devices have gone a long way toward making information of all kinds as well as entertainment available, thus improving the competitive position of the blind in a sighted world.” More so, “electronics has opened up many new types of employment to the blind. From these beginnings, many have developed a sufficient interest to seek work in this field. However, many obstacles confront the would-be electronics technician or engineer.”[2] It was largely due to these convictions that Swail dedicated himself to developing assistive devices for the technical training and scientific education of people who were blind or partially sighted in order to improve their chances of employability and social integration. For this purpose, he worked alongside members of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) so as to ensure his designs were practical and effective.

During his tenure with the NRC, Swail collaborated with some of the most prominent scientists of Canada, and developed more than thirty assistive instruments ranging from laboratory equipment and mobility devices to punch card readers. These innovations, in turn, opened many doors for people who were blind or partially sighted to become employed in a variety of fields, including science, engineering and the then burgeoning field of computer programming. Swail received the Order of Canada in 1984 for his efforts, followed by the Order of Ontario in 1987 and an honorary doctorate from McGill University.[3] 


[1] “Three Bind Students to Get McGill Degrees,” The Montreal Gazette (25 May 1946), 12.

[2] James Swail, “Electronics for the Blind,” Report of the National Research Council of Canada, Ottawa, ON, Canada (June 1962), 1.

[3] Euclid Herie, Journey to Independence: Blindness – The Canadian Story (Toronto: The Dundurn Group, 2005), 118; “Dr. James C. Swail” (Obituary), Ottawa Citizen 15 September 2005), 12.