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.”