Throwback Thursday: Frank Hall's Greatest Invention

A few weeks ago, the Hall of Fame for Leaders and Legends of the Blindness Field inducted Frank Hall at a ceremony included in our annual meeting agenda.  In the aftermath, I was invited up to the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired in Jacksonville, Illinois—where Frank worked—to present the plaque to the school and speak in the community on Frank’s life and work.  And this morning I realized that despite mentioning Frank in almost every post on the braillewriter that I have written for the last six years, we have not featured his machine.  Since it was the first successful mechanical braillewriter, and influenced almost every writer designed since, that seems a bit remiss, don’t you think?

A Hall Braillewriter, about fifteen inches wide, with its
 metal base enameled black, a bright nickel and aluminum
paper carriage on top, and two sets of three keys flanking
a central space key.
The first prototype for the Hall Braille Writer was conceived by Frank Hall in 1892.  It was created by a local gunsmith and machinist, Gustave Seiber.  Hall took the prototype to the Munson Typewriter Company in Chicago, where Superintendent T.B. Harrison and designer Samuel J. Seifreid created six pilot models, delivering them to Hall on May 27th, 1892.  Munson Typewriter also made an additional lot of 94 machines for Hall that were sold all over the country.  The Hall Braille Writer significantly influenced the national debate over tactile codes that was raging at the time in favor of the braille system.

One of the happy stories told by Hall’s daughters (and recounted by Walter Hendrickson in his book about the Illinois School) was an encounter he had with a young girl at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Millions visited the great white way and one of the marvels of the show was Frank Hall’s braillewriter and stereograph machine.  Meeting Frank, and being told that he “was responsible for the writer that she used so often, she put her arms around his neck and gave him a big kiss on the cheek.  Hall’s daughter said that he could never tell of this incident without tears in his eyes.”  That young girl, from Alabama, was a thirteen-year-old Helen Keller.  She would grow up to become one of the most effective spokespersons for women’s rights, civil rights, disability rights and human rights.  She would write books read by millions and that would be translated into countless languages that would inspire people all over the world.  And most would be composed originally in braille on a braillewriter whose design was inspired by the work of Frank Hall.  And her hands would again and again return to her bookshelves loaded with books in braille, books whose publication would have been impossible without the work of Hall, Gus Seiber, T.B. Harrison, and C.J. Seifreid.

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