An Innovator for Closed Captioning

Whether you are deaf, hard of hearing, in a noisy room, or learning through visual aids, you have witnessed or are familiar with closed captioning. Typically it can be found on–hopefully–every television show out there in the same format, same font, and same little white letters in black boxes. In an era where television has become such a big part of our daily lives, closed captioning has become one of the greatest innovations to technology for the deaf and hard of hearing. So, how many of you know where it came from and who invented it? No hands? Well, here’s some information to pack in that brain of yours.

Bill Kastner, not a name you’re familiar with, right? Way back when, Bill had a speech impediment, a stammer, and this would obviously impede his ability to communicate. Throughout high school, he would use Morse Code as a means of talking to others without stammering at them. This early affection for technology and innovation spurred an interest that would later on help him to invent a decoder that would change the world.

A few decades later, Bill Kastner would be hired as an engineer for the well-known company, Texas Instruments. In the mid ’70s the Public Broadcasting Service contracted Texas Instruments to create a device that would make it possible for the deaf to read what was being said on TV. Bill Kastner and his team designed a decoder that would decode the first message ever to transmit over the airwaves, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” The experiment was a success and would soon after be known as “closed captioning.”

Decoders were not as we know them to be today, teeny tiny chips akin to a computer chip or SD card. Decoders first started out as big black boxes that were separate from your television, and hundreds of dollars a pop at that! Aside from being widely inaccessible to the general deaf and hard of hearing communities, closed captioning was a hit almost from the beginning. Years later, this popularity would push the United States federal government to create a legislation in 1993 that declared all TV’s 13 inches or larger to have these decoders built into them.

Even though closed captioning was not an invention per se, it was an idea that would never have existed without the invention of the decoder by Bill Kastner. To this day, closed captions are widely used, and by more than just the deaf and hard of hearing. Even Bill himself can be caught reading them while working out at his local YMCA. They have evolved and inspired so much so that we are seeing different types of captioning styles and new avenues of equal accessibility, for example, described audio and subtitling glasses for movie theaters. The future looks bright, and it’s thanks to Bill Kastner.

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