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James C. Marsters, 85

James C. Marsters, 85; Dentist Co-Created Phone System for Deaf

Dentist, aviator and inventor James C. Marsters was deaf.
Dentist, aviator and inventor James C. Marsters was deaf. (No Credit - No Credit)

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By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 28, 2009

For the first 40 years of his life, Dr. James C. Marsters refused to be alienated by his deafness. He was provisionally admitted to dental school on the condition that no special accommodations would be made for him. He graduated and became an orthodontist and could read lips so well that oftentimes his own patients did not know he could not hear them.

As a licensed aviator, rather than cause a panic in the air traffic control tower about an incoming pilot who couldn't hear radio instructions, Dr. Marsters would fib that his receiver was malfunctioning. The airport would respond by guiding him in with a reserve flashing light system.

A telephone conversation, however, had always been out of the question. But with help from Robert Weitbrecht, a physicist from Stanford University and amateur radio enthusiast, and Andrew Saks, an electrical engineer and wealthy grandson of the founder of Saks Fifth Avenue department stores, Dr. Marsters developed the TTY, a text telephone system that led to revolutionary independence for the hearing-impaired.

Dr. Marsters, who died July 28 at 85 of a heart ailment in his home in Oakland, Calif, teamed up in 1964 with the two deaf men. The TTY, a machine that resembled a typewriter with a phone wire plugged into it, changed the sender's typed messages into tones and sent them down telephone wires like a fax machine.

"This breakthrough was a technological declaration of independence for deaf people," wrote Harry G. Lang, author of "A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell" (2000). "Finally, we could use the basic telephone ourselves. It gave us access to new jobs. It greatly improved the quality of our lives."

In 1966, fewer than 18 TTYs were operational. Six years later, 2,500 deaf users communicated through the device. During the mid-1980s, after improvements in design that made TTY smaller and lowered the cost, more than 180,000 TTY lines were registered in the United States, marking a giant success for Dr. Marsters and allowing members of the deaf community to connect with one another on a level never before achieved, said Karen Peltz Strauss, author "A New Civil Right: Telecommunications Equality for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Americans" (2006).

James Carlyle Marsters was born April 5, 1924, in Norwich, N.Y. His father was a pharmaceutical executive, and his mother was a nurse. He became deaf after a bout of scarlet fever as an infant and learned to read lips and speak from his parents.

He was a 1947 chemistry graduate of Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and a 1952 graduate of the New York University dental school.

After a brief marriage to deaf artist Joan Tausik ended in divorce, Dr. Marsters headed west for a fellowship in orthodontics through the University of Southern California. He finished there in 1954 and started a private practice based in Pasadena, Calif. He eventually opened a second office in Lone Pine, Calif., and retired from dentistry in 1990.

In 1964, Dr. Marsters, Weitbrecht and Saks formed Applied Communications and marketed the TTY. At first they converted their TTYs from discarded Western Union and Defense Department Teletype machines. Weitbrecht came up with the idea of using an acoustic coupler, now known as a modem, to send the machines' electrical signals down phone wires as tones. It worked.

"Are you printing now?" Weitbrecht asked Dr. Marsters during their first successful transmission from their homes in Redwood City, Calif., and Pasadena. "Let's quit for now and gloat over the success."

Dr. Marsters embarked on a nationwide tour as the company's spokesman, praising the TTY's effectiveness and necessity for everyday safety, and urged deaf people, hospitals and fire departments to install the machines for emergency calls.

In the late 1960s, Dr. Marsters and Saks came up with the idea for local telecommunications companies to create a messaging relay service, where a hearing person could leave a note with the operators to be sent by TTY to a deaf person.

The companies agreed to do it, but the service was short-lived because TTY machines at the time were so loud they disturbed the business of the operator service and because of high consumer costs. Their idea, however, was the catalyst for legislation through the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 that required phone companies to operate a relay service for the impaired.

For almost four decades, the TTY system reigned as the sole form of distance communication for the deaf and hard of hearing, but now it is considered obsolete. After the advent of the Internet, the TTY largely fell out of favor because of more advanced technology such as instant messaging and e-mail, although it continues to be used by emergency services operators, Peltz Strauss said.

Weitbrecht died in 1983 and Saks in 1989. Dr. Marsters' wife of 49 years, the former Alice Dorsey, died in 2003. Survivors include three children from his second marriage, Jim Marsters Jr. of Oakland and Jean Marsters and Guy Marsters, both of Pasadena; and two grandchildren.

In a 1963 Washington Post article about lip reading, Dr. Marsters said that when he would tell people in conversation that he has a hearing impairment, they would inevitably, and ineffectually, try talking louder. He said that when people raised their voices, their lips moved more precisely in this exaggerated fashion, which did make reading their lips easier.

Who were the hardest to read? Smokers, Dr. Marsters said. When they talked, it appeared to him as if a cigarette were always dangling in their mouths. Dr. Marsters called them "mumblers."


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