Sight loss innovations that changed the world

Orange typewriter on blue background
Technology is an integral part of our day to day lives; whether it’s listening to music, browsing the internet for the latest fashions, or just putting on a bit of telly, we can’t escape it.

But it may surprise you to know that some of the world’s most famous and most widely-used technology was originally created to help blind and partially sighted people. For this World Sight Day, we’re reflecting on some of the sight loss innovations that changed the world.

The phonograph

Now the phonograph isn’t a well-known piece of tech these days, but it was hugely significant in the development of the playback of music.

The phonograph was originally created by Thomas Edison in 1877, and would end up as the common gramophone, which is one of the earliest ways of recording and playing back music.

The device has gone on to play a massive part in how we listen and enjoy music. When Thomas Edison first created the phonograph, he listed out ten uses for the machine, and playing music only came fourth on his list. In his top three, was the idea that the phonograph could be used by blind and partially sighted people to play audio books.

The typewriter

Did you know that the typewriter was originally created to help blind and partially sighted people to write letters?

The first working typewriter was built by the Italian, Pellegrino Turri, in 1808. He had created it for his blind friend, Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano, so that she could send love letters.

It was thought that the sighted population didn’t need the typewriting device because upper-class, literate people had the time to write letters, using quill pens. Whereas writing with a quill was a difficult task for blind or partially sighted people, as they wouldn’t know if their writing was uniform or if the quill was running out of ink.

Also, during the early 1800’s, Turri and Ralph Wedgwood from England, each separately created carbon paper. Turri’s paper worked with his typewriting machine, while Wedgwood’s invention, patented in 1806, allowed blind people to write without worrying about whether the pen had ink as they used a metal stylus instead.

Voice assistants

Text to Speech technology (TTS) has been used by blind and partially sighted people for many years to access the written word; enabling screen readers to provide access to text and menus on computers and phones via voice output. However, there had been minimal innovation in this area, so in 2007 RNIB decided to work with a start-up company from Poland to help raise the bar of synthetic audio and innovate more commercially acceptable TTS. The partnership succeeded in improving the pronunciation and intelligibility of Text-to-Speech voices. It initially developed two English Text-to-Speech voices (Brian and Amy) and then went on to create processes to form new voices and minority languages.

Today, TSS technology has hit the mainstream, through the rise of voice assistants and smart speakers.

These are just a few examples of how innovations that benefit people with accessibility needs, also benefit and improve things for the masses.


More information

  • Find out more about technology and useful products in our technology resource hub.
  • RNIB’s Innovation Through Partnership team build relationships with organisations from across the world to educate, empower, and innovate across sectors in order to improve customer experience. For further information, please contact the team on [email protected].