by Judi Cannon
When I was a first grader at Perkins, the Lions Club in my hometown bought me my first and only Perkins Brailler. More than 60 years later this same machine sits on my desk in my home office, ready to use almost every day. There is history connected with this wonderful machine that I am happy to share with you.
Let’s go back to the 1800s, when a variety of mechanical braille writing devices were produced around the world. Probably the most unique was the Daisy Writer. The keys were arranged in the shape of a daisy flower, making it awkward to write on the machine. Other designs were tried.
In 1892, Frank H. Hall, Superintendent of the Illinois School for the Blind, introduced a new design. It was expensive to produce, as all of the parts were made by hand. Replacing parts was difficult and slow. It did have some success, as it was a major improvement over past machines.
Howe Press produced its first brailler, the cast-iron model C, in the late 1800s. Improved models were manufactured at the beginning of the 20th century. These machines, and those from the past, were typically made from cast iron, were heavy, and broke down easily. They were very noisy and expensive to produce. The keys were often hard to push down, and the paper would fall out at the end of the page.
We now move forward to the 1930s when David Abraham immigrated from Liverpool, England. He had served in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I, where he learned auto mechanics. At the time, Abraham developed very high standards for excellence and accuracy. After the war he worked in his father’s stair rail factory, where he designed and built machines that turned the various parts used in the business. After arriving in the Boston area during the Depression, he found work with a maintenance crew building the Charles River Road between Perkins and the Charles River.
Abraham noticed the Perkins sign. He thought that the school would be a great place to work. After an interview with then-director Dr. Gabriel Farrell, he was hired to work in the Industrial Arts Department.
In 1931, Dr. Farrell made the decision to completely stop production of braillers. Knowing the abilities and work ethic of David Abraham, Farrell asked him to take on the task of building a prototype of a new brailler. Abraham agreed. He and Dr. Waterhouse collaborated on the new design. They wanted the machine to be quieter, durable and easy to use for both children and elders. Problems from past braillers needed to be corrected, including making dots uniform in size and placing the brailling head inside the machine.
Abraham worked in his home workshop for the next several years. He often visited Fred Lehman, a tool and die maker, to get help in making the parts to complete his project. In later years, Fred Lehman married Abraham’s daughter. A prototype was finally presented to the Perkins trustees in 1941. Material needs for wartime manufacturing immediately stopped production. This gave time for Perkins students to put the new machine through its paces.
Later the Perkins trustees authorized the use of half of the Howe Press endowment, originally established by Michael Anagnos, to be used to bring the machine shop in South Boston to the Watertown campus.
Abraham became chief engineer and set up the machine shop to his specifications. His perfectionism was often frustrating for management, as it caused delays. Abraham said that the Perkins Brailler design was more precise than a fine watch.
In 1946, the Perkins trustees voted to subsidize production. Then-manager of Howe Press, Dr. Waterhouse, promoted the brailler nationally to ensure a strong market. The American Foundation for the Blind, which had recently halted production of its own brailler, assisted Perkins in securing $40,000 in loans from foundations in New York and Boston.
The Perkins Brailler began to ship in 1951. It was believed that only 1,000 units would be needed, but soon, orders of over 2,000 braillers came in. It took several years for the backlog to be reduced. Its original price was $70. Abraham retired in 1961, when the machine shop was dedicated to him.
In the 1990s, the Perkins Brailler was built in other countries to help lower the cost overseas. Production was done in England, India and South Africa. To date, more than 395,000 braillers have been shipped to 200 countries and territories. Perkins was able to obtain Perkins Brailler #1 from the Oregon School for the Blind. That machine is now part of the Perkins archives.
I talked with Leon Murphy, who worked for Howe Press for more than 30 years. He explained why David Abraham was the right person to design and oversee production. Leon said that Abraham was well liked, very strict but fair and a perfectionist. Leon joined the Howe Press staff in 1956, retiring as head of the final assembly department more than 30 years later. He said that to get to this point, he had worked on all of the machines in the shop. He had to know how each machine worked and how the parts fit into the whole puzzle. With over 600 parts, this was a challenge. The next step was to learn the pre-assembly process. Only after successfully learning all of these steps could Leon move into the final assembly room. Leon, along with five co-workers, built 40 machines a day. He was dedicated to his work. He knew that the brailler that he was building would be the best that it could be because of David Abraham. Few changes were made to the machine over the years.
So the next time you use your Perkins Brailler, remember how it all began, and say thank you to the man who designed this machine which has lasted more than 70 years.