Dr. James Marsters, one of three men inventing the TTY, dies
Dr. James C. Marsters, Deaf Pioneer, Dentist and Inventor, Dies
NTID News – August 4, 2009
Dr. James Carlyle Marsters, a California orthodontist who was instrumental in the development of text telephones (TTYs), died comfortably in his sleep at his home in Oakland on July 28, 2009. He was 85.
“He was an icon in my eyes,” said Alan Hurwitz, president of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a college of Rochester Institute of Technology. Hurwitz considered Dr. Marsters a personal friend for nearly 40 years. “He was like a father figure to me. He gave me wonderful advice and guidance whenever I needed to talk with him about anything. He was a very kind man, passionate and always interested in talking with people. He had a great sense of humor and was a man of many talents and interests. He will be sorely missed.”
His most outstanding contribution to the Deaf community started in 1964, when he worked with two other deaf men, Robert Weitbrecht and Andrew Saks, to advocate for changes that would allow deaf persons to communicate with TTYs from home and work. Before that, deaf persons were limited to communication in person, by letters or by phone with the help of hearing friends or family members.
Chronicled in the book A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell, by Harry G. Lang, Weitbrecht made history by calling Dr. Marsters with the first long distance TTY phone call on a traditional telephone line. Their communication was garbled at first. But after some adjustments were made, their typed words were clear and concise: “Are you printing me now?” Weitbrecht asked Dr. Marsters. “Let’s quit for now and gloat over the success.”
This teletype communication was made technically possible at that time by the development of an acoustic coupler that would carry signals through phone lines. The three men also worked to overcome the barriers to TTY communication established by telephone corporations, which at the time prohibited direct connections to telephone lines. They founded Applied Communications Corporation in Belmont, Calif. and obtained discarded teletype machines, repaired them and gave them to deaf people to use with the acoustic modems. They also educated the Deaf community about this new technology and partnered with other organizations to make TTYs a reality. Thick telephone directories of TTY users were eventually published and local organizations were formed to allow deaf persons to meet, communicate and disseminate the technology across the country. TTYs liberated deaf persons, allowing them for the first time to independently communicate with others in different locations.
“I look back with pleasure and satisfaction with time well spent serving the public and fellow man,” Dr. Marsters once said.
“My dad didn’t want to draw the attention to himself, he wanted people to know it was a team effort,” said his son, Jim Marsters Jr. “Even though he was the last of the three living (modem developers), he would tell people, ‘The glory is not mine. It was an effort of many.’ He was really modest about it, but it was something he was really, really proud of.”
Dr. Marsters, a long-time friend of NTID, was a former member of the college’s National Advisory Group. He was presented with an honorary doctorate from RIT in 1996 and was honored in 2008 by having the modem he used for the first TTY call between two deaf persons prominently displayed at RIT’s Wallace Memorial Library.
TDI (formerly Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc.) created the James C. Marsters Promotion Award for helping improve accessibility for people with disabilities.
“I just think about how he cared about other people – patients, family, friends in the deaf community,” said his son. “When I was growing up, I remember he was spending a lot of time fussing around with those big Western Union teletype machines so you could communicate with another person who happened to have another machine on the other end. It started in his basement in Pasadena. But he spent a lot of time both in California and going to Washington pushing for government support for this program to make telephone communication more accessible to deaf people. I was really impressed by his time and energy he put in to help deaf people.”
Born in Norwich, N.Y., Dr. Marsters became deaf as an infant. He graduated from the Wright Oral School for the Deaf in New York City in 1943 and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. After graduating he moved to New York City and married Joan Tausik, a deaf painter.
He applied to dental schools but was repeatedly told a deaf person could not become a dentist. Undaunted after three years, he was eventually admitted to New York University College of Dentistry on a provisional basis with the understanding they would provide no special accommodations, his family said. He graduated with a DDS degree in 1952, becoming one of the first deaf dentists in the country.
After a divorce and a move to California, Dr. Marsters was admitted into a fellowship of orthodontics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, which he completed in 1954. He started a solo orthodontic practice in Pasadena in 1954 and continued until his retirement in 1990.
An accomplished pilot, Dr. Marsters had a second office in Lone Pine, Calif., where he would fly to in his private plane and provide dental services to their underserved community. Often those services were done for free because the patients could not afford dental care.
Although there were other deaf pilots, most would avoid flying to airports that required radio communication. Dr. Marsters, who spoke, radioed control towers and announced his proximity to the airport. He would ask the tower to give him clearance to land using signal lights, said his son.
In 1955, Dr. Marsters married Alice A. Dorsey, then the director of the preschool for deaf children at the John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles. Together, they raised three children.
“They were an inseparable team through all of my father’s accomplishments,” said their daughter, Dr. Jean Marsters. “She supported him and was equally dedicated to issues of deaf advocacy and education as he was.”
After 49 years of marriage, Alice died in 2003. He then moved from Pasadena to Oakland and remained active in that area’s deaf community.
Dr. Marsters enjoyed fishing, sailing, soaring, genealogy, investing and roaming the country on family vacations in his motor home. He was a magician and appeared on a live television commercial in his college days.
He was active in both deaf and hearing communities – holding membership in the Masonic Lodge, Rotary and Kiwanis clubs and the American Dental Association. He served as vice-president of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and was founding member of the Oral Deaf Adult Section of the association in 1964. He also was the association’s first keynote convention speaker who was deaf. He was given the association’s top award, “Honors of the Association” in 1990 for “extreme dedication to and sustained efforts to the betterment of the lives of people with hearing loss.”
“Jim’s passing has prompted innumerable reminisces from A.G. Bell members signifying the broad and deep impact he had on our lives,” said A.G. Bell President John R. “Jay” Wyant, who cited his “indomitable can-do spirit” and persistent leadership. “He and the other pioneers of his generation were trailblazers in expanding communication access for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing and their contributions touch us in many ways each and every day.”
Dr. Marsters was a member of the National Advisory Group at NTID, where in 2000 he started the Dr. James C. Marsters Endowed Scholarship Fund to benefit deaf and hard-of-hearing students. He was presented with an honorary doctorate degree from RIT and in 2008 was honored when the modem used in the first TTY call between two deaf persons was prominently displayed in RIT’s Wallace Memorial Library.
Dr. Marsters is survived by three children, Jim Marsters Jr. of Oakland, Dr. Jean Marsters and Guy Marsters, both of Pasadena, and two grandchildren.
Plans are being made for a memorial service in Oakland on Oct. 24 or 25. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions may be made in his memory to the John Tracy Clinic, 806 West Adams Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90007, or to the Jean Weingarten Peninsula Oral School, 3518 Jefferson Ave., Redwood City, CA 94062.
Contributions may also be made to the Dr. James C. Marsters Endowed Scholarship Fund, NTID Development Office, 52 Lomb Memorial