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The History of the American Printing House for the Blind: A Chronology

1850s: A Need for Books

Morrison Heady

1854: A blind Kentuckian, Morrison Heady, collects donations for the embossing of Milton’s Paradise Lost in raised letters.

1856: Dempsey B. Sherrod, a blind man from Mississippi, travels his home state to raise funds to manufacture books in raised letters. By 1857, he has convinced the state of Mississippi to charter a national "Publishing House to Print Books in Raised Letters, for the Benefit of the Blind." The company will be located in Louisville, Kentucky.

1858: The General Assembly of Kentucky Passed An Act To Establish the American Printing House for the Blind.

1860s: The Civil War & Broken Promises

Etching depicting APH's first press

1860: The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) raises its first operating funds from private citizens in Mississippi and Kentucky — $1,000 from each. Superintendent Bryce M. Patten orders a press, and an operation is set up in the basement of the Kentucky Institution for the Education of the Blind.

1861: Before the fledgling institution begins to emboss books, the Civil War breaks out, wiping out any possibility of the southern states making good on their promises of funding.

1865: The war ends and a state allocation from Kentucky, along with individual donations from Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois, allows the Printing House to begin work. The following year, APH produces its first book, Fables and Tales for Children, in Boston Line Letter.

1870s: A Federal Subsidy For Embossed Books

1876: APH earns a reputation for quality and its central location provides easy access to river and rail transportation. The American Association of Instructors of the Blind (AAIB) elects a committee to draft a bill to provide federal funding for blind students.

1879: On March 3, 1879, the first federal act benefiting blind students passes. The "Act to Promote the Education of the Blind" provides funding to the Printing House for embossed books and apparatus for blind students throughout the country. This funding continues today through the Federal Quota Program.

The End of the 19th Century: Building & Rapid Growth

Original 1883 building

1883: Federal funding creates new demand for embossed books and the Printing House outgrows its basement room at the Kentucky School. Using funds from the State of Kentucky, APH constructs its own building on land next door.

In the remaining years of the 19th century, APH production of embossed books increases dramatically, growing from a fifteen-page publications catalog in 1894 to a 100-page listing ten years later.

1900s – 1920s: The Era of Braille Production Begins

1922: Building expansion doubles the capacity of the press room and bindery.

Gradually, New York Point and raised letters are phased out in favor of braille, and later, interpoint braille embossed on both sides of a page. Improvements are in the works for better stereograph machines, faster presses–anything that lowers the cost of embossed book production. Educational aids are basic–braille slates, writing guides, maps, spelling frames, etc.

1928: Introduction of the Reader’s Digest® in braille.

1930s: New Products and Services

ca. 1936 recording studio

1931: The Pratt-Smoot Act expands funding for literature for blind adults. A machine shop is established, and arithmetic slates and the Beetz (music) Notation Graph are introduced.

1932: Adoption of Standard English Braille ends the era of books in different tactile systems in the U.S.

1934: An endowment fund for APH is initiated to subsidize magazine subscriptions and other programs not covered by Federal Quota funds.

1936: The recording studio and record production is established. Later that year, Hugh Sutton narrates APH’s first Talking Book, Gulliver’s Travels. 32 books are recorded by the summer of 1938.

1939: The Reader’s Digest® is first recorded.

1940s: The Work Continues Despite a World War

ca. 1940 braille presses

APH extends its work week to 44 hours because of war-related labor shortages. The critical list of materials essential to the war effort includes most of the materials used in the company’s products.

1946: The Act to Promote the Education of the Blind is expanded to include large type materials and APH creates a large type textbook department.

1948: Large type textbook production funded by the Act, and expanded braille and talking book production funded by the Library of Congress allows APH to build a major manufacturing wing on the back of the building.

1950s: Expansion & Innovation

A team of workers creating computer punch cards

During the 1950s, International Business Machines (IBM) and APH partner to write an English text-to-braille computer translation program.

1952: The Department of Educational Researchis established. Under its first two directors, Samuel Ashcroft and Carson Nolan, APH dramatically expands its production of education aids. Fifty-two braille magazines are in production.

1959: APH begins recording Newsweek® Talking Magazine.

The Central Catalog textbook reference service is organized, helping locate textbooks transcribed into braille by a wide variety of organizations. It is the early version of what became the Louis Database.

1960s: The Digital Revolution Begins

1964: IBM presents APH with an IBM709 Data Processing System mainframe computer, valued at two million dollars. The system is used to automatically translate print to braille.

1964: APH complets the largest braille project ever undertaken–the World Book Encyclopedia® in braille.

New cabinet-style stereographs are built. UNICEF funds a project that sends older APH stereograph machines to foreign countries.

1970s—1980s: Embracing the Computer Age

The Worldbook Encyclopedia

1970: Flexible records begin to replace rigid vinyl discs for Talking Books.

1974: Cassette are tapes introduced for Talking Books.

1980: A new $2 million addition is completed in 1980, bringing the facility to its present size of 282,000 square feet.

1981: APH produces the first recorded encyclopedia, the Talking Book Edition of the World Book Encyclopedia.

A computerized database for text books (Central Automated Resource List — CARL) replaces the Central Catalog card catalog.

APH Braille Transcription Editors (electronic braillewriting terminals) become operational. Braille production is now largely computerized.

1987: The last rigid vinyl Talking Book comes off the press in May.

1988: The Department of Educational and Advisory Services is created to coordinate and support the administration of the Federal Quota program and APH’s work with its Ex Officio Trustees.

1990s: Moving Toward a New Millennium

Computerized braille production station

Cassette tapes replace flexible discs for recorded magazine production.

The Braille Research Center is initiated.

1994: The Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind opens in October.

1998: The APH File Repository is created to house publisher files and translated braille files. The Accessible Textbook Initiative and Collaboration (ATIC) is created to address the issues of timeliness and availability of textbooks in a variety of accessible media.

2000: APH launches two new databases — Accessible Media Producers (AMP) and Fred’s Head Expert Database. The Parts Catalog listing individual pieces of larger sets is published. This is the first of several specialty catalogs, including the Adult Life Catalog, Family Life Catalog, and Bookstore Catalog.

2000s: The 21st Century and Beyond

2001: APH completes the first phase of the transition from analog to digital recording in the studio. Digital recordings of Talking Books offer increased quality and greater navigating capabilities at a lower cost.

2001: The Hall of Fame for Leaders and Legends of the Blindness Field is announced along with the names of the first 32 inductees. The Hall is supported by the entire vision profession, but is housed at APH. Nine of the ten "living legends" from the Hall of Fame are honored at APH’s Annual Meeting in 2002.

2003: APH’s Accessible Textbook Initiative and Collaboration (ATIC) begins pilot production of a new large print process. These books are standard size full-color textbooks with a variety of fonts and font sizes (minimum 18 point).

2003: APH releases Book Port, a portable book reading device able to download and read electronic text files with synthetic speech or digital recorded books (including DAISY books) with human speech.

Photo of a Braille+ Mobile Manager

2006: Building on Patterns: Kindergarten Level is introduced by APH. This product is the successor to the highly successful primary braille literacy curriculum Patterns Reading Program.

2007: APH introduces the Braille+™ Mobile Manager, a small, talking PDA with a brailler-style keyboard. The Braille+ includes a myriad of functions, such as a word processor, calendar, wireless internet access, audio recorder, and an MP3 player.

2008: APH celebrates its 150th anniversary. In that year the Printing House embosses almost fifteen million pages of braille, more than fourteen million pages of large type, two million audio cassettes, and a wide variety of educational aids.

2010: The last Talking Book produced on cassette for the Library of Congress at APH rolls off the line as production is converted to the new digital cartridge. For the time being, magazines continue to be issued on cassette.