When Michael Anagnos became Perkins’ second director in 1876, the printing department had been producing tactile books for more than 40 years. The press had always struggled for funding, and Anagnos was determined to make it self-sustaining. A consummate fundraiser, Anagnos created a $100,000 endowment for the printing department, renaming it Howe Memorial Press as a tribute to his father-in-law Samuel Gridley Howe, Perkins’ first director.
The early years
In the 1880s, Howe Memorial Press began producing books in American Braille as well as in the embossed alphabet Boston Line Type system developed by Samuel Gridley Howe. Many years later, when standard braille was adopted, the press shifted its production to that system. Howe Press also developed and sold simple mechanical braille writers, maps, slates, ciphering boards and other school materials used by students with visual impairments throughout the country.
In the 1890s, Frank H. Hall, superintendent of the Illinois Institution for the Education of the Blind, revolutionized braille writer design with his streamlined typewriter-style machine. Within a few years, Perkins and other manufacturers were producing similar designs. However, because these early writers were hand tooled, their performance was unpredictable and idiosyncratic and replacing individual parts was extremely difficult and slow. Perkins produced several models over the next 30 years, all of which shared these design problems.
Developing a better brailler
In the early 1930s, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) produced a better braille writer in partnership with typewriter manufacturer L.C. Smith. The Foundation Writer was the best device available at the time, but it was heavy and not very durable. In 1931, AFB Director Robert Irwin persuaded Perkins Director Gabriel Farrell to halt production of its braille writer, but Farrell resolved to develop a superior machine that would solve all the earlier design problems.
David Abraham, an English immigrant with a manufacturing background, joined the Perkins Industrial Arts Department in the mid-1930s. Abraham’s manual skills and experience in manufacturing and design brought him to the notice of Director Farrell. Abraham agreed to create a prototype of a braille writer incorporating a list of desirable features. This proved to be a lengthy undertaking. For the next five or six years, Abraham spent innumerable evenings and weekends working on the brailler in his home basement workshop. By the time Abraham brought his prototype to Dr. Farrell in 1941, the United States was embroiled in World War II, and production was postponed due to national restrictions on manufacturing.
During the war years Perkins students experimented with Abraham’s writer and found it excellent. The brailler’s embossing head was internal, eliminating the overhanging carriage that had created difficulties in previous models. Paper insertion and the spacing mechanisms were simple, quick and accurate. The machine’s singular key action produced dots of uniform height regardless of the amount of pressure upon the keys. The prototype was durable and much quieter than other braille writers available at the time.
In 1946, Perkins trustees agreed to subsidize the production of the brailler. Edward Waterhouse, manager of Howe Press, promoted the device nationwide to assure a market when it was finally produced. The preparations, including tooling up and relocating the cramped and outmoded machine shop from South Boston to Watertown, took five years and cost half of the Howe Press endowment raised decades earlier by Michael Anagnos.
Invaluable financial assistance came from the American Foundation for the Blind. Convinced of the superiority of the Perkins Brailler, the AFB discontinued manufacture of its braille writer, and assisted Perkins in securing $40,000 in loans from foundations in New York and Boston. This enabled Howe Press to produce its first 2000 machines at the reasonable cost of $70 a piece.
David Abraham had become Chief Engineer at Howe Press, and his perfectionism was often very frustrating for Perkins management and potential customers. He proudly said the brailler’s design was more precise than a fine watch, and he often held up production to make minute adjustments. However, this attention to detail created a machine that could withstand the rigors of repeated use over decades.
The Perkins Brailler today
In the 1990s Perkins set up brailler assembly plants in England, India and South Africa. While Howe Press still produces the parts to Abraham’s exacting standards, offshore assembly solves the problem of high duties and import taxes that made the brailler too costly for many who desperately needed it. A special grant from the Conrad Hilton Foundation further reduced the cost of the Perkins Brailler for people who are blind in developing countries.
David Abraham gave the world an excellent brailler that is still manufactured today with only minimal changes to its original design. In industrialized nations, users with personal computers rely upon the Perkins Brailler for note taking and correspondence. Developing nations find that it is the most practical, affordable communications tool for their blind and deafblind citizens. Its reliability and durability make it a mainstay in classrooms all over the world. Hundreds of thousands of Perkins Braillers have been produced, but not one has been known to wear out. Because of its sturdiness and usefulness in writing braille, the Perkins Brailler will surely be a mainstay well into the future.
Suggested citation for scholars
McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Howe Press and the Perkins Brailler.. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.