Communicating Numbers: Talking Clocks and Braille Calculators, 1970-1975
Since James Swail began devising assistive technologies in the late 1940s, he placed a great emphasis on equipping devices with a range of non-visual sensory output that would allow a user to effectively interpret information being conveyed to them. It was therefore no coincidence that when Swail and his colleagues at the NRC began developing different models of accessible clocks and calculators in the mid-1970s, he designed these devices to provide both tactual output, as well as auditory signals. This ensured that the instruments were versatile enough to accommodate a range of different needs, preferences and circumstances of individual users.
The first prototype of such a device was a digital clock Swail constructed in 1975. Pictured here, it is turquoise in colour and of a rectangular cubical shape. A red, rectangular digital display is positioned at the top end, which registers into a tactile display on the front end of the device—a gold-coloured metal and translucent plastic plate. Three black buttons on the side below the tactile display control the different settings of the machine. The device also produces auditory output through a circular, silver-plated speaker on the left side of the device, hence its unofficial name the “talking clock.”
At roughly the same time, Swail also developed a calculator that conveyed numbers in a similar fashion, pictured here. For this invention, he adapted a Texas Instrument calculator, which he built into a metal, rectangular turquoise frame. Similar to the clock, the visual digital display feeds into an auditory and tactile board display that features braille numerical symbols. A speaker to the side of the device allows for auditory output as well.
Both the clock and the calculator were never commercially produced and their use remained limited to the laboratories of the NRC. Nevertheless, these devices were significant innovations. In many respects, they represent very early precursors to synthetic voice clocks, calculators and even talking computer applications that are today at the forefront of many assistive technologies for people who are blind or partially sighted in Canada and beyond.
 Swail Clock, artifact no. 1985.0824.001, Collections Supplementary Report, Canadian Science and Technology Museum, Ottawa ON, Canada. http://techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/collection-item.php?id=1985.0824.001
 Swail calculator, artifact no. 1985.0822.001, Collections Supplementary Report, Canadian Science and Technology Museum, Ottawa ON, Canada. http://techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/collection-item.php?id=1985.0822.001