The Hall Braillewriter, c.1892

Hall braille-writer, CSTM artifact no. 1987.0262.001

Hall braillewriter (c.1892)

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 of the first of the mechanical devices of this genre was what became known as the Hall braillewriter. Although used in a variety of Canadian schools and institutions, the machine was an import much like the slate and stylus.    

The Hall braillewriter pictured here consists of a rectangular cast iron frame, being approximately thirty centimeters long, twenty-three centimeters wide and fifteen centimeters high. The keyboard resembles a piano, with six black keys in total, three on each end, with a raised, oval metallic space key in between. The three left keys correspond to dots one, two and three in a braille cell and the three on the right to keys four, five and six. A cast iron gooseneck arches over the top of the machine and down to where the paper feeds through rolls. This gooseneck has six small holes in the end, mirroring the six-dot pattern in braille.[1]

The Hall braillewriter was developed by Frank Hall, a man who served as the superintendent of the Illinois Institution for the Education of the Blind from 1890 – 1894. As Hall himself described, he wanted to construct a machine that would “enable [students] to write with the same ease and rapidity with which one may write on the most modern typewriter.”[2] As such, its design was largely inspired by the typewriter—an invention that had become widely popular by this time and used in many schools across North America, including the Ontario Institute for the Blind (OIB) in Canada. In the 1870s, the typewriter was introduced to the school, along with a telegraph by then superintendent J. Howard Hunter. Although typewriters were introduced with a desire to widen employment opportunities for graduates, their design made it impractical for students at the OIB. Typewriters were built, after all, with sighted users in mind. Those who were blind or partially sighted had to work much more diligently to operate a machine that did not take their needs or capabilities into account.[3]

The invention of the Hall braillewriter would change all of this, however. After the first operational Hall braillewriter was developed in 1892, many institutions across the United States and Canada purchased the machine. Those who were trained on the braillewriter typically took to it rapidly. Its popularity and wide distribution is largely reflected by the serial number of this Hall braillewriter on display here: 25127-25373. Roland Galarneau—someone we will hear of more in this exhibit, gave this braillewriter to the Canadian Science and Technology Museum in 1987. He obtained it from a Mrs. Fernande Tremblay of Montreal, a woman who may have very well been associated with L’institut Nazareth, the school where Galarneau received his primary education.[4]

[1] This description is adapted from one Dr. Norman Ball provided in a paper entitled “A Most Unusual Innovator: Frank H. Hall,” which he gave at the international conference “Blind Creations” in June 2015. Many thanks to Dr. Ball for making this paper available for this project.

[2] Frank Hall, 1891, quoted in Norman Ball’s  “A Most Unusual Innovator: Frank H. Hall,” 7. 

[3] 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.

[4] Hall braillewriter, artifact no. 1987-0262-001, Collections Supplementary Report, Canadian Science and Technology Museum, Ottawa, Ontario.