Students and Faculty Updating Perkins Brailler

January 30, 2018

Assistant Professor John Voccio; Zachary Gower, BSME ’18; Joseph Schneeweiss, BMET ’16; and Professor Simon Williamson pose with a Brailler machine

From left: Assistant Professor John Voccio; Zachary Gower, BSME ’18; Joseph Schneeweiss, BMET ’16; and Professor Simon Williamson

In an age of innovation and rapidly changing technology, a team of students and faculty members at Wentworth Institute of Technology has been working to update the Perkins Brailler—a popular typewriter for the blind that has changed little since its manufacturing debut 67 years ago.

A faculty member leading the effort, Assistant Professor John Voccio of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Technology, said the braillewriter project has focused among other things on redesigning the machine’s print head and enterprising ideas to lower the cost of the unit, which retails for about $800. Reducing that financial whack is a chief goal of the Wentworth-Perkins project, according to Voccio, because the price keeps the industry leading apparatus well out of reach of blind people in developing countries.  

The braillewriter work, which falls under the university’s EPIC initiative—short for externally collaborative, project-based, interdisciplinary culture for learning—has included several Wentworth students who have worked at Perkins as part of the university’s hallmark cooperative education (co-op) program. 

Helen Keller using Perkins BraillerPerkins, internationally known and located in Watertown, Mass., is the oldest school for the blind in the United States. Founded in 1829, its students have included Helen Keller, who used a Perkins Brailler to write speeches and reports, and demonstrated how the device works in a 1954 video. (Photo at left shows Keller receiving a Perkins Brailler. Credit: Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind).

Zachary Gower, BSME ’18, who did one of his two required Wentworth co-ops at Perkins during the fall 2017 semester, said the Institute’s team also has focused on making the braillewriter lighter and more portable without affecting the machine’s original ingenuity and inherent attributes. The Perkins School, with a company called Howe Press, manufactures the highly popular Perkins Brailler. The school has been making the machine in various incarnations since the 1930s, well before the current iteration’s invention by a Perkins teacher, David Abraham. Manufacturing of his Perkins Brailler began in 1951.

Another student, Joseph Schneeweiss, BMET ’16, said the braillewriter project helped prepare him for work after Wentworth. He worked as a co-op at Perkins in the fall and summer of 2016.

“Working at Perkins on the low-cost brailler showed me how a professional mechanical engineering team works, including planning, discussion, designing, prototyping, and documenting. This will help me in getting oriented quickly in future jobs. I learned that design and industrial production have a fruition gap that can be overcome by well-orchestrated teamwork.”

According to Jan Seymour-Ford’s brief online history of braillewriters (updated in 2009), the Perkins Brailler is used in more than 170 countries. She wrote that, because of its dependability, the machine remains popular even in an era of rapidly evolving technology.

“Why do so many people still want the old-fashioned mechanical Perkins Brailler? The answer is because they are so simple and tough. Most people who are blind in the United States have a Perkins Brailler in their homes for writing notes and messages. Few of these people would ever give up their braillers, even though they also use more modern computer technology.”

But Voccio said that cost aside, the machine—simple in appearance but packed with parts—also could use some time-saving upgrades, as well. For instance, one goal for the new design is to eliminate so-called “dots-tuning.” That process takes place during the initial manufacturing stage now and requires an hour of labor per-braillewriter, said Voccio. 

“This thing is like tuning a piano,” he said.

Voccio said he hopes the Wentworth team, which includes Professor Simon Williamson of the Department of Industrial Design, can develop a more modern unit overall and, potentially, a way to make it foldable and more portable, so that it might fit into a backpack, for instance.  

The students’ work for the Wentworth-Perkins initiative has entailed poring over dozens of braillewriter models and previous improvement ideas. Other Wentworth students who have worked at Perkins include Erica Amato, BSME ’17, who is continuing her graduate studies abroad; Jamison Stogryn, BSEN '18; and Tamim Afandi, BSME '18.

The Wentworth team has been working at the school with Dan Roy, director of operations for Perkins Solutions, the school’s braillewriter assembly arm. Perkins manufacturers about 10,000 braillewriters annually in partnership with India-based WORTH Trust.

“The project has been a win-win-win for Wentworth, Perkins, and the visually impaired community,” said Roy.

The students who have worked on it agree with his assessment.

 “It’s a fantastic project,” said Gower, who spent a semester at Perkins disassembling and reassembling the braillewriter and its estimated 700 parts, and helped to fashion the improved print head.

“It’s a much simpler design that requires fewer parts overall,” he added. “The new print head will cause less wear and tear on the machine and could help to make it much less expensive.

Working on this project has made me think that this really could be a game-changer for people; that we could be helping to impact potentially tens of thousands of people.”

The Perkins School project evidences Wentworth’s EPIC spirit and intense focus on career preparation for students.

“Wentworth does prepare you for going out and working,” said Gower, whose first co-op took him to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. 

“I think this project says that Wentworth is actually reaching out and helping people all over the world. And it says that Wentworth has confidence in its students to help do that.”

--Dennis Nealon

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