obert was born in 1920 in Orange, California. Soon after he was born, his parents found out that he was deaf. His mother taught him how to lipread, and although he went to a deaf school for a very short time, Robert soon stopped going to school altogether. Instead, he was home schooled with another deaf boy by a private tutor. When his tutor died, Robert was placed in a mainstream public school. Public school was not an enjoyable experience for Robert. He was often made fun of for his speech, and continued to have self-esteem issues throughout his life. It was during these years at public school that Robert developed a love for the stars on evening walks with his family. At 18 years old he won the Bausch and Lomb Honorary Science Award for building a reflecting telescope. Robert also became fascinated by the Ham Radio. He eventually became a licensed Ham Radio operator and used Morse Code to speak to hearing people all over the world.
Robert then went on to attend University of California Berkley, graduating in 1942 with honors in Astronomy. There he met another Deaf man who taught him how to sign, but Robert’s skills weren’t perfect and he always felt more comfortable lip reading. After graduation, he started working at the Radiation Lab at University of California as a Physicist, and then took a job as an Electronics Scientist at the US Naval Air Missile Test Center. While working for the Navy, he developed a timing system for controlling and taking pictures of missiles in flight. During World War II, Robert was placed on the Manhattan Project, which was responsible for building the world’s first atomic bomb. During this time Robert developed the Geiger Counter, which is used to measure levels of radioactivity.
After the war Robert returned to school, earning a Master’s degree in Astronomy from the University of Chicago in 1952. He went through all of his schooling without an interpreter, borrowing notes from classmates to understand what was said during lectures. Robert’s fascination with the Ham Radio continued, as he submitted articles to RTTY Magazine and traveled around the country with his radio visiting other Ham operators. In 1950, Robert obtained a radio teletypewriter that allowed him to receive messages, but not send them, over the radio. It was also incompatible with the telephone. Robert fooled around with the device a little and was able to modify it so it could send as well as receive messages over the radio. He also started to challenge many of the Federal regulations regarding radios and eventually got permission to broadcast on more frequencies, among other things.
Robert didn’t really think about modifying his radio Teletypewriter until he met James C. Marsters through a friend. James had been working on a way for Deaf people to communicate over the telephone for years. At James’ suggestion, Robert was able to invent an acoustic coupler that allowed the TTY to work with a regular telephone. The very first TTY call was made in May of 1964. Although the device would only send or receive messages to and from another TTY, Deaf people suddenly gained an important means of communication. They no longer had to knock on doors and leave notes if someone wasn’t home. They could call their friends instead.
Robert, together with James and his friend Andrew Sacs, started the Applied Communication Corporation to try and put TTYs into the homes of Deaf people everywhere. They also worked on developing the technology even further, and eventually came out with the Weitbrecht Modem. Although the three didn’t receive a lot of money for their invention, they felt that the fact that it made many people’s lives easier was compensation enough. Robert was also awarded tons of honors from various institutions for his work, including an honorary degree from Gallaudet University.
In 1983, Robert was walking his dog when he was struck by a car while crossing the street. He died in the hospital several days later. While his death was tragic, Robert will always be remembered as the man who helped make millions of Deaf people all over the world a little more independent.