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.)


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Throwback Thursday Object: the Portabraille, one of the first refreshable Braille displays

I was looking through our catalog of previous entries to this blog this morning, searching for inspiration, but the little box to my right could not be ignored.  It is one of Wayne Thompson and Fred Gissoni’s original PortaBraille machines, and it has an interesting story.  We lost Fred about eighteen months ago, so I can’t call him up any more and get some additional—and usually very funny!—scoop.  That continues to be a great loss to us all.    (You can read more about Fred in a previous Fred's Head post I hope everyone is excited about the new low cost refreshable braille display that will soon come out, the Orbit Reader 20.  Our story comes from the time before refreshable braille devices were very common at all.  In the mid-1980s, you only had a few choices:  the Elinfa Digicassette and the Telesensory Versabraille were just about the only game in town.  Both stored their input on audio cassette tapes although later they could connect to your PC.  And they were briefcase sized, fairly heavy, and cost about six grand.  At the Kentucky Department for the Blind, two legendary futurists were about to start changing that.  Wayne Thompson and Fred Gissoni had come up with a tiny little device they called the PocketBraille in 1985.  It fit into the case of a standard VHS tape.  Powered by nine-volt batteries, it had a little internal memory (32K!), but was really just a braille keyboard that allowed you to take notes in braille and then export your notes to your computer for editing, storage, or printing.  And it had a tiny speaker and the capability to read back your file using a very early speech chip, the SSI-263.  But Thompson and Gissoni were also working on a more ambitious idea, our object this week, the PortaBraille, which combined the features of the PocketBraille with a twenty cell refreshable braille display from an Italian company, Tiflotel.  The PortaBraille was a “portable, fully interactive braille computer terminal.”  It had 56K(!), weighed less than four pounds, and had a rechargeable battery.  But one of the neatest things about the Portabraille was that Wayne and Fred published—I would say posted but in 1986 there was no internet to post things to as we know it--the assembly instructions and for $900 in parts from a Lexington supply house you could build your own!  Imagine a day when you built your own computer and the designer just gave the plans away.  A few years later, Deane Blazie took the plans to the PocketBraille and developed the very influential Braille ‘n Speak.  And APH had its own version as well.  Our example in the museum is interesting because while it has the feel and look of a prototype, it is actually one of the few built commercially for the Department for the Blind by the parts supplier, Southland Manufacturing.

1 comment:

Big D said...

Could a link be posted to those plans/instructions? Did they include code to make the device run, or just designs for the device itself?

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.