From homeless orphan to acclaimed inventor

From the archives: Perkins alumnus Dennis Reardon overcame tremendous odds to become a gifted architect and inventor

A person at a printing press

Dennis Reardon in the Perkins printing office where he served as manager for 43 years. Photo from the Perkins Archives.

October 30, 2015

October is American Archives Month, an opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of historic documents and records and the role of archivists in preserving and sharing them with the world.

When Dennis Reardon arrived at Perkins Institute in 1855 as a destitute child with limited vision in one eye, no one guessed  he would grow up to become manager of Perkins’ printing department, as well a successful architect and inventor. 

His story, a tumultuous journey of trials and triumphs, is one of many housed in the Perkins Archives, part of the Samuel P. Hayes Research Library at Perkins School for the Blind. It’s also a favorite of Perkins Archivist Molly Stothert-Maurer.

“Reardon is a perfect example of a figure in Perkins’ past that I would love to sit and have a conversation with,” she said. “He seems to be a Renaissance man of sorts with talents ranging from architect, book printer to electrician. He is a shining example of a life lived to the fullest without the benefit of sight.”

Reardon was sent to Perkins School for the Blind (then called the Perkins Institution) in 1855 at the age of eight. He was an orphan and homeless. His vision gradually improved, and he left Perkins after graduating to do planning and charting for the U.S. Coast Survey. He held other odd jobs, as a clerk and a carpenter, but was rejected from the Army and Navy and couldn’t find steady work.

He turned to Perkins for help. In a letter to Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, the director of Perkins Institution at the time, Reardon pleaded for a job.

“Every place I have tried to get employment I am rejected on account of my eyes,” he wrote. “If I had any means as most others have in my condition I might make brooms or set up in some business, but I have no such means.”

Reardon was hired at Perkins as a general laborer, doing kitchen work and driving a donkey cart. Soon after his return, he became totally blind and fell into depression. When he resumed work, it was in the printing office, helping to produce embossed books for the blind. Occasionally, he served as night watchman. In those hours spent alone thinking, his inventing career was born.

“Invention was his hobby, and he rode it well,” Perkins Director Edward Allen later wrote. “Indeed, it became his blessed safety valve.”    

Reardon’s first invention, a horseshoe that could be adjusted for slippery conditions, won a bronze medal at the Boston Mechanics Fair. In 1877, he devised a system of electric bells connected to the clock in his office, which would ring in multiple buildings to signal the end of each class period. Dr. Alexander Graham Bell and other scientists reportedly visited Perkins to see the system in action.

Within five years, Reardon was named manager of Perkins’ printing department and carried out the important work of printing books for the blind for 43 years. He also designed an improved printing press that produced higher-quality embossed books with greater speed and accuracy. In the 1879 Annual Report, Perkins Director Michael Anagnos wrote admiringly of Reardon’s innovative genius.

“His inventions bear the stamp of originality and the evidences of a powerful mind,” he wrote. “Where experienced workmen have been baffled by mechanical difficulties and unforeseen obstructions, his keen insight and correct judgment have invariably found a way out of every dilemma.”

Reardon remained at Perkins until his death in 1916, continuing with his inventions while also immersing himself in the world of architecture. After drafting plans and overseeing the construction of several small buildings on Perkins’ campus, Reardon took on larger projects, including the design and construction of Anagnos’ kindergarten for children who were blind in Jamaica Plain. 

For much of his Perkins career, Reardon accepted only modest compensation for his work, and paid his own expenses when traveling.

“When asked, as he was, why he did this, he replied: ‘Oh, carfares are so little to give in comparison with what the institution has done for me,’” Allen wrote. “[He said] he didn’t need the money as much as the institution did.”

For a man who started out with nothing, Reardon’s remarkable achievements demonstrated a rare strength of character, said Allen.  

“Dennis Reardon might have gone down in darkness and defeat, and few would have blamed him for it,” he wrote. “But he chose when blind to make himself acceptable, efficient, needed at his alma mater, and of definite worth to the world; and therefore we acclaim him a hero.”

Learn more about Reardon and other interesting figures in Perkins School for the Blind’s history »

Read more about: Alumni, Perkins History