Fred’s Head from APH, a Blindness Blog

Fred’s Head, offered by the American Printing House for the Blind, contains tips, techniques, tutorials, in-depth articles, and resources for and by blind or visually impaired people. Our blog is named after the legendary Fred Gissoni, renowned for answering a seemingly infinite variety of questions on every aspect of blindness.

(See the end of this page for subscribing via email, RSS, browsing articles by subject, blog archive, APH resources, writing for Fred's Head, and disclaimers.)



Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Samuel Genensky Magnified the World

Samuel Genensky is best known for developing a kind of closed-circuit television that became the prototype for the video magnifiers sold around the world today that enable people with severe visual impairments to read books, magazines and other conventionally printed materials.

Genensky, who was born in New Bedford, Mass., on July 26, 1927, was determined not to be treated as a blind person, even though he met the legal definition. His eyes were burned shortly after birth when a delivery-room nurse accidentally administered the wrong eyedrops to guard against infection. No sight remained in his left eye and he had only 20/1000 vision in his right eye.

Hardworking and exceptionally bright, he completed the first eight years of school in seven years. After elementary school, he was sent to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., where he refused to use Braille even though he knew it. He preferred to use what little sight he had, even if it meant holding a book up to his nose.

Frustrated by teachers' demands that he "act like a well-behaved blind child," he left Perkins for a regular public high school in New Bedford. To keep up with his normal-sighted peers, he took his father's World War I-era binoculars to geometry class one day and was delighted to discover that he could see what the teacher was drawing on the board.

With the help of a doctor, he added another lens to one side of the binoculars, essentially creating a bifocal system that allowed him to read the blackboard in the distance as well as the book on his desk. He began to earn A's.

This contraption, though cumbersome, worked well enough to get Genensky through high school, as well as four years at Brown University, where he graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in physics in 1949. He earned a master's in pure mathematics from Harvard in 1951 and a doctorate in applied mathematics from Brown in 1958.

In the late 1950s, not long after joining Rand, a colleague, Paul Baran, noticed how Genensky had to work slumped over his drawing board with his nose to the paper. Baran suggested that there had to be a way to improve the mathematician's ability to see.

With Baran and other scientist and engineer friends, Genensky hooked up a closed-circuit TV with a camera. It not only magnified the type on a page but had controls for brightness and contrast. Genensky didn't have to slump over his desk anymore.

When the device was publicized as "Sam Genensky's Marvelous Seeing Machine" in a 1971 issue of Reader's Digest, the Rand mathematician was flooded with thousands of requests a week from partially sighted people who wanted to try it. Many of them said the magnifying machine enabled them to read printed matter for the first time. "I couldn't turn my back on them," he said in 1994, recalling his decision to devote himself to working for the partially blind.

Another innovation from Genensky's two decades at Rand sprang from his experiences looking for the bathroom. The signs marking Rand's restrooms were too small for him to read unless he put his face right up to the door. All too often he was peering at the wrong door when it opened and a startled woman came out.

When a Rand guard asked why he was smelling restroom doors, Genensky knew he had to find a solution to the dilemma.

He's responsible for the widely adopted system of a triangle-shaped sign to identify the men's room and a circle-shaped one for the women's room. Genensky's brainstorm eventually became the standard for marking public restrooms in California, years before similar federal requirements were introduced in the 1990s.

In 1993, when fragments of scar tissue began to cloud his "good" right eye, Genensky underwent a cornea transplant, as well as cataract removal and pupil reshaping. When the bandages were removed, a new world opened, especially in his perception of color. For instance, he saw that his wife was a redhead, not a brunet as he had thought.

The visual improvements lasted for more than a decade, until other age-related health issues rendered him completely blind.

Article Source:
Los Angeles Times

No comments:

Subscribe to receive posts via email

* indicates required

Browse Articles by Subject

Follow us on Twitter


Write for us

Your input and support in the evolution of Fred's Head are invaluable! Contact us about contributing original writing or for suggestions for updating existing articles. Email us at


The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) makes every attempt to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the data contained in the Fred's Head articles; however, APH makes no warranty, guarantee, or promise, expressed or implied, concerning the content or accuracy of the information provided in Fred's Head. APH does not endorse any technique, product, device, service, organization, or other information presented in Fred's Head, other than products and services directly offered by APH.

The products produced by the American Printing House for the Blind are instructional/teaching materials and are intended to be used by trained professionals, parents, and other adults with children who are blind and visually impaired. These materials are not intended as toys for use by children in unstructured play or in an unsupervised environment.

The information and techniques contained in Fred's Head are provided without legal consideration (free-of-charge) and are not warranted by APH to be safe or effective. All users of this service assume the risk of any injury or damage that may result from the use of the information provided.

Information in Fred's Head is not intended as a substitute for professional advice or treatment. Consult your physician before utilizing information regarding your health that may be presented on this site. Consult other professionals as appropriate for legal, financial, and related advice.

Fred's Head articles may contain links to other websites. APH is not responsible for the content of these sites.

Fred's Head articles created by APH staff are (C) copyright American Printing House for the Blind, Inc. You must request permission from APH to reprint these articles. Email to request permission.

Any submissions to Fred's Head should be free of copyright restrictions and should be the intellectual property of the submitter. By submitting information to Fred's Head, you are granting APH permission to publish this information.

Fair Use Notice: This website may contain copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright holder(s). This site is operated on the assumption that using this information constitutes 'fair use' of said copyrighted material as provided for in Section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law.

Opinions appearing in Fred's Head records are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Printing House for the Blind.