An illustration of a keyboard, telephone, a tablet with captions displaying, and a speech synthesizer on a desk.

5 Pieces of Tech That Changed the World

Technology helps us navigate our environments and communicate with one another.

Here are five pieces of technology that forever changed our world.

1. Speech synthesizer

Alexa users may groan when she occasionally utters her trademark apology, “Sorry, I’m having trouble understanding you right now.” However, the speech synthesis technology behind Amazon’s virtual assistant, voice-guided navigation systems, and similar devices has greatly facilitated communication over the past few decades.

Since Bell Labs engineer Homer Dudley showcased his Voder (Voice Operation DEmonstratoR) – a manual speech synthesizer that hissed and buzzed at the press of piano-like keys and pedals — at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, voice synthesis technology has improved by leaps and bounds.

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking used a voice synthesizer once Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) affected his speech, as did film critic Roger Ebert following a tracheostomy. ~

Voice synthesis in screen readers and text-to-speech programs also assist blind and low-vision folks as well as people with reading and speech disabilities.

2. Telephone

In an 1894 address in Boston, inventor Alexander Graham Bell told a crowd at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf that his telephone “was a failure…[as] it did not enable the deaf to see speech as others hear it” as he had originally intended.

While the telephone initially only benefited the hearing community, Deaf scientist Robert Weitbrecht invented the teletypewriter (TTY) in 1964 that transmitted typed messages via the telephone. Long before we had text shorthand like LOL, we had GA, for “go ahead” and SK, or “stop keying,” to help facilitate fluid TTY conversation.

Today’s smartphones not only have text messaging, but also include video capability to allow for signed communication—finally enabling Deaf people to “see speech” like Bell originally intended of his famous invention.

3. Automatic doors

Anyone who’s ever juggled an armful of groceries can appreciate the convenience of doors that sense our presence and open as if by magic.

While the earliest design is attributed to the ancient Greek mathematician Heron of Alexandria and involved a complicated system of pulleys, water, and fire, the automatic sliding glass doors we enjoy today were invented in 1954 by Texans Lew Hewitt and Dee Horton.

Automatic doors serve myriad purposes: they reduce heating and cooling costs, save space, and allow us to avoid touching door handles during cold and flu seasons.

Most importantly, people using wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, or canes or pushing shopping carts or strollers can enter and exit buildings independently without maneuvering heavy doors.

Automatic doors are heralded as prime examples of universal design – a concept of designing products and environments accessible to all people.

4. Keyboards

Computers foster connection and communication among people across the globe. However, these devices are only as accessible as their component parts.

Some folks struggle with a computer mouse and navigate the net solely with a keyboard.

Many of us are familiar with the QWERTY key arrangement, but there are others. The Maltron layout, for example, is designed to be more ergonomic, leading to less fatigue and more accurate typing.

The Maltron keyboard company, named for inventor and founder Lillian Malt of England, produces a variety of ergonomic and assistive keyboards, including those for one-handed and left-handed typists.

Vertical keyboards allow users with a mouth stick clenched between their teeth or a head stick strapped to their forehead to type without using fingers. There are also braille keyboards for blind and low-vision typists.

5. Captioning

Did you know that experimentation with captioning is nearly as old as film itself?

Intertitles—cards with explanatory text or dialogue—first appeared in the 1898 British film Our New General Servant. The first Academy Awards even had a category recognizing excellence in title-card writing. However, intertitling faded with the transition from silent films to talkies that began with The Jazz Singer in 1927.

Deaf silent-film actor Emerson Romero endeavored to make talkies accessible to Deaf audiences. In 1947, he spliced captions in between picture frames and circulated copies of these films among Deaf clubs and schools. Around the same time, English and Belgian producers attempt to etch captions onto glass slides or directly onto the film itself. Find out more about the history of captioning in our article 5 Great Moments in the History of Closed Captioning.

Captioning has come a long way since these early experiments, with open and closed captions for television, film, and the web.

To get your very own captions added to any media, video or stream, simply get in touch with our friendly team!

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