First-Hand:AT&T Mod 1-A Deaf Terminal
Submitted by A. Michael Noll
February 23, 2023
© A.M.Noll 2023
In the late 1970s and early 1980, I was working at the AT&T Marketing department in product management. Videotext and home information were then the rage, and AT&T was performing a trial with Knight-Ridder Newspapers in southern Florida. A terminal that used the home TV set as a display was designed for the trial. It could be used to access the information stored on the Knight-Ridder centralized database.
The trial participants discovered that the terminal could also be used to send and receive short text message – this was quite popular – more than accessing the database. Indeed, this was an early form of today’s texting. I called it “digi-text.” AT&T, however, was not interested in text messaging.
Joe Heil was working at AT&T in market management and was responsible for the handicapped market, such as the deaf. He was interested in deaf telecommunication using text terminals, such as old Teletype terminals. Alexander Graham Bell was a teacher of the deaf, and the Bell System inherited his legacy of assisting the deaf. Joe and I teamed up together to explore some sort of text terminal that could help the deaf and also facilitate text messaging for the general market.
As product manager, I developed the technical requirements for the terminal. It had to accommodate both the ASCII and the Baudot data standards. The Indianapolis Laboratory (associated with Bell Labs and Western Electric) designed the terminal, and constructed some prototypes. The engineering was under the direction on Ralph L. Cerbone. We called it the Mod 1-A Deaf Terminal. In effect, the deaf market was an entry to a much broader market, which would then actually benefit the deaf. The French had developed a text terminal, called Minitel, around that time.
The AT&T terminal had a small back-and-white CRT for display and an alphanumeric keyboard that slipped under the display when not in use. It was a compact and fine terminal, designed and constructed in less than a year, including at least one custom chip. Cerbone and his team had done their design well.
The prototype terminal was shown to consumers in focus groups. The participants said the terminal looked great, and even thought a company like Sony had designed it. However, the participants were not sure what to do with it or whether they had a need for it. Today’s Internet and texting were still decades away. As product manager, with such an uncertain consumer response, I could not approve the actual manufacture and sale of the terminal. I will always remember how upset Cerbone was when his creation could not go forward. Engineers are emotionally attached to their creations. With hindsight, perhaps we should have gone forward, and attempted to educate consumers about the coming future.