Today: The story of Dr. Jim Marsters, who co-invented a device that uplifted millions of lives yet he had to overcome a giant U.S. monopoly to offer it.
This revolutionary device was a vital step in bringing millions of deaf people into the mainstream.
Born in 1924, Jim Marsters lost his hearing as an infant to scarlet fever and measles. But even as a child he refused to let deafness defeat him. He became an expert lip reader.
Determined to succeed, Jim graduated from New York’s Wright Oral School for the Deaf in 1943 and got his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. in 1947.
Union College was a great victory because not only did Jim become a college graduate, he read lips well enough to “hear” the lectures and the discussions. His family and friends were proud of him and it seemed his career would now takeoff.
But it didn’t. Although college graduates were in short supply, and many of his fellow graduates quickly got jobs, because Jim was deaf, no-one but family would hire him. For the next three years, he worked in his father-in-law’s necktie factory.
It was then Jim realized if he was going to succeed, he’d have to employ himself. He decided to go to dental school so he could run his own practice. But despite his high entrance exam scores, every school he applied to rejected him because he was deaf.
It was terribly hurtful. But rather than give-up, he decided to focus his energy on being admitted to one particular top dental school. For two years, he pursued New York University, refusing to take “No” for an answer.
Finally they accepted Jim, but only if they could quickly expel him if he could not keep up. But he was an excellent student who worked hard and sailed through dental school.
Then on the advice of his friend John Tracy, Spencer Tracy’s son for whom the famous clinic that helps hearing impaired children is named, Jim moved to Los Angeles. There he got an advanced dental degree from USC and became an orthodontist.
In 1954 in Pasadena Jim began what became a very successful practice. He spoke so well and was so adept at reading lips; many of his patients had no idea he was deaf.
But when phone calls came in for him, his staff would listen and mouth the words to him and he’d respond directly to the caller. He did the same thing at home as his children mouthed the words.
It was this awkward telephone process that in 1964 led to the invention that revolutionized phone use for millions of deaf people.
With two other deaf men, Robert Weitbrecht, a Stanford University physicist and Andrew Saks, an electrical engineer, and a grandson of the Saks Fifth Avenue founder, they created a remarkable device.
They bought beat up old Teletype machines from junk yards and converted them to sophisticated equipment that could read and print typewritten messages across telephone lines. Suddenly, deaf people, like most other people, would be able to readily use the telephone.
The three inventors were ecstatic for this was a fantastic breakthrough for deaf people!
But their joy didn’t last for long. AT&T, the giant U.S. corporate monopoly that then controlled the telephone lines, prohibited its usage in their network on the grounds it might damage their lines. It was a crushing response!
And AT&T seemed far too big fight. Would this be the end of their story?
Not for these three men who had battled all their lives for opportunities to succeed in a hearing world that discriminated against them. They took on this massive monopoly and filed an appeal with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
But it would take widespread public support to influence the FCC. Jim traveled across America, communicating with deaf people and hearing people, including the media to inform them of this grave injustice. And the media picked up the story.
Finally in 1968, bowing to public pressure, the FCC ruled AT&T could not prohibit its usage as long as their lines weren’t damaged.
It was a great victory for deaf people. They could now connect the phone with others who had similar devices and communicate freely. This opened up job opportunities and it helped break through the isolation so many deaf people had had to live with.
And it’s a system still in use today; in a far more advanced and miniaturized form known as text telephone. Until the common use of the Internet in recent years it served a vital role.
But before we conclude our story, it has one more wonderful twist. Jim became an avid pilot, not accepting that it was something a deaf person couldn’t do. He flew his own Cessna.
To avoid panicking air traffic controllers that a person unable to hear their instructions was flying the plane, he conducted takeoffs and landings by persuading control tower personnel to use their flashing light backup systems.
Recently, Jim passed away at the age of 85 in his Oakland (CA) home after a brief illness. He is survived by a daughter who is a doctor, and two sons, one a chemist, the other a musician and by two grandchildren.
What Jim showed us is that a determined person can overcome seemingly impossible barriers to achieve one’s dreams. He was a student, a dentist, and a pilot as well as a loving husband and a father.
As a hobby, Jim was also a magician. But his greatest act of magic was to overcome barriers put in front of him, as he lived a full and happy life. Through his invention, he helped others to do the same, including perhaps someone you know.
Success Tip of the Week:
Has a handicap held you back? If so, let this be the week you begin to overcome it as you strive against whatever barriers you face to attain your dreams.
In the next KazanToday:
How a successful businessman “retired” at 60 and then attained some of his greatest accomplishments over the next 46 years, as he lived to be a robust 106.