A Century Ago, the Optophone Allowed Blind People to Hear the Printed Word

The optophone turned letters into tones and was the proof of concept for optical character recognition

12 min read

Mary Jameson began using the optophone in 1918. By 1972, she could read 60 words per minute.

Blind Veterans UK

On 25 June 1912, the Irish writer, inventor, and physicist Edmund Edward Fournier d'Albe demonstrated a curious machine at the Optical Society Convention in London. He called it an “exploring optophone," and his remarkable claim was that it allowed people who were completely blind to “hear" light.

The optophone's sensing apparatus—a cell that relied on the photoelectric properties of selenium—was housed in a long, slender wooden box, to which was attached a pair of headphones. While holding the box, the user would listen for modulations in tone as the cell detected light; the device was surprisingly good at distinguishing between light and dark spaces and even the flickering of a match. Fournier d'Albe pitched it as an important new mobility tool that would allow people who were blind to safely explore their environments. In a newspaper interview, the inventor went as far as to hail it as “the first stage in making the eye dispensable."

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