On the second day of March 1950, Helen Keller showed up at MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics. There, she encountered Norbert Wiener, the mathematician and engineer best known as the father of cybernetics. It was a meeting of two of the century’s greatest minds.
Wiener had an invention he thought would revolutionize how deaf people experienced the world: a glove that could channel the sound of the human voice into the wearer’s fingertips. A glove that could, in essence, hear for them. But when Keller tried it out, things didn’t exactly go as planned. This is the story of the hearing glove—a story unearthed and documented by media and disability studies scholar Mara Mills.
After helping to design destructive anti-aircraft guns during the war, the awkward but brilliant math professor Norbert Wiener now turned his efforts to make, in his words: “the first constructive application of cybernetics to human beings.” One historian later characterized Wiener’s about-face as a “wish to heal, to repair the kinds of damage done by the weapons of war on which he had worked.”
As the son of a philologist, Wiener believed that “speech is the greatest interest and most distinctive achievement of man.” He recalled the way his father initially taught him language, animating him much the way the mythical Greek sculptor Pygmalion brought the statue of his beloved Galatea to life. So, too, did Wiener recall stories of Keller’s remarkable education, told to him by his childhood tutor, one of Keller’s former classmates. So Wiener’s newest project was a tool that would make spoken language accessible to the deaf. It was the hearing glove.
As Mills notes in her research, the hearing glove was not an entirely new concept. As far back as the 1880s, Alexander Graham Bell wrote the alphabet on a left-handed glove—others who used the design called it a “talking glove”—allowing a young boy named George to “hear” by feeling where on his palm he was being pressed. Bell wrote: “The use of the glove alphabet was so little noticeable that … I took him to Barnum’s museum and talked to him all the time the lions were being fed, and … no one among the spectators had the slightest suspicion that the boy was deaf.”
By the 1920s, AT&T sponsored vibro-tactile research to invent a way—as the psychologist in charge of the experiment put it—“of grafting a mechanical ear upon the skin.” The limited success of this project was picked back up in 1949 when an MIT Master’s student who later worked alongside Wiener developed a system he called "FEELIES," named after the sensory cinema in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Major newspapers touted the plan as “amazing,” and “ingenious.” Weiner told the New York Times that “deafness, as any considerably social problem, might even be eliminated.” Letters poured in from scientists, educators, and parents all over the world, from El Paso to Barcelona to Jerusalem. The information officer at Gallaudet College, a school devoted to educating the deaf and hard of hearing, wrote that the entire college “is very excited about your new work.” Wiener’s most impressive correspondent in these months, though, was Helen Keller.
Although Wiener did not invent his “cybernetic glove,” he was its chief publicist. In December 1949—months before his meeting with Keller—Wiener outlined how it worked on stage in front of a meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science. The vibrations of speech would be captured and filtered into a series of five narrower frequency bands, each of which would be delivered to a different finger of the left hand in the form of shocks or pulses. The impressions had to exist in a certain range—strong enough to be felt, not so strong as to be painful. With training, Wiener asserted, a person could learn to translate these signals into words, in effect to turn their hands into cochlea. Or, as one historian put it, “skin hearing.”
Keller—both deaf and blind from the age of 19 months— found fame at age seven for learning to read and write using white cotton alphabet gloves. (When a former governor of Maine offered to buy her a doll, she instead requested “some beautiful gloves to talk with.”) By 11, she was noted for “her eagerness to use any means of intercourse with others,” including typewriters and Morse code. By 1950, she neared 70, and was renowned for her poignant autobiographies as well as her radical socialist, pacifist, and feminist essays.
By then, Keller had already participated in a number of experiments. A few were formal, as when she tested out gyroscopes for inventor Elmer Sperry or went into the acoustic “dead room” at Bell Telephone Laboratories which she called “that fantastic, baffling chamber.” Many more were informal, such as when she touched Mark Twain’s throat as he spoke. “Ah, how sweet and poignant the memory of his soft slow speech playing over my listening fingers,” she wrote. Alexander Graham Bell once held her palm to a telephone pole and asked her what she felt. “The humming which I felt in my fingers never stopped,” she recalled. Bell explained that “the copper wires up above us were carrying the news of birth and death, war and finance, failure and success from station to station around the world.”
After Keller wrote to him about the hearing glove, Wiener—en route to visit family in New Jersey—visited her Connecticut home, and invited her to Cambridge, Massachusetts to try it out herself. Early the next month, Keller and her assistant Polly Thomson arrived at MIT to test it out. Keller claimed she was “set on fire with the desire to perceive … more fully and render my thumbs alert to their share of the vocal elements.”
In the lab, Keller was fitted with the prototype—not a wearable glove, so much as five vibrating finger pads mounted on a tabletop box. But after an hour or so practicing Keller was unable to interpret any spoken words. Her fingers were simply not sensitive enough to record all of the information packed into speech. There was one thing she could recognize though—an expression that came through clearly by its tone and tempo, namely “the hearty laughs ringing out in the machine at my blunders.” The glove was a failure. Keller and Thomson were soon on the train back to Connecticut. A year later, the Research Laboratory of Electronics pulled the plug on the hearing glove project.
In the six and a half decades since, various others have tried to recharge the idea. In the 1990s, the University of Melbourne introduced the Tickle Talker, which divided speech into eight channels instead of MIT’s five. Around the same time, a similar device called the Tactaid vibrated lightly not against the hand, but against the breastbone. But these were never considered to fully replace hearing, so much as to function as a stopgap before a surgical hearing implant or to enhance lip-reading skills.
Today, data-gloves have already been designed for video-gaming, surgery, even for astronauts in space. New models like AcceleGlove and Enable Talk Glove can convert sign language to speech. (With these new gloves, the hearing—not the deaf—are the ones who need the translation.) One project out of NYU is working on a vibro-tactile glove that uses GPS to help steer wearers to their destination. Yet, for all the novel and clever applications, no new attempts at “skin hearing” seem to be underway.
“Nobody has been able to make it work,” media and disability studies scholar Mara Mills who has researched and written about the hearing glove said. “Our skin just isn’t sensitive enough to pick up the immense amount of information involved in speech.”
Despite a dazzling idea, despite cutting-edge technology, despite the sustained attention of some of the brightest minds in living memory, the hearing glove failed. The insurmountable hurdle: our own skin. In trying to circumvent one particular limitation, we struck upon another that we all share, that we didn’t even know we had.
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