It's taken more than 500 years, but what Johann Gutenberg did for the sighted world, high-tech engineers are doing for the blind.
A new computer system at the Hadley School for the Blind in north suburban Winnetka is speeding up the publishing of Braille books at one-eighth the cost, said Robert Winn, president of the correspondence school.
The computer system, believed to be the only one of its kind in America, prints 400 Braille characters a second, 600 lines a minute, and 100 pages in the time it takes a Braille typist to produce one page, Winn said.
A textbook that might have taken up to a year to produce can be done in a week with the new system, he said.
"This is really like inventing the printing press for the blind," Winn said, referring to Gutenberg, the German printer who is credited with inventing movable type in Europe--the breakthrough for mass production of books.
"Before there was the printing press for sighted people, books were slow and expensive to produce," Winn said. "Now it will be cheaper and quicker (to produce books) for the blind. This is that kind of breakthrough."
Winn said a typist using the $110,000 system punches in pages of a textbook at a computer terminal. The computer has special chips so that when a page is printed, it comes out in the raised dots of Braille.
What's significant, Winn said, is that volunteers can now be used to type the texts, freeing for editing Braille experts who normally would have to create the master Braille sheet by hand.
Winn said this system will be particularly useful for blind high school and college students, because textbooks change so often that by time a book is ready in Braille, the course will be over.
"Now, with this, they'll be able to keep up with rapidly changing texts," he said, because revisions and updating can be done quickly.
Winn also said smaller quantities of books can be produced, making readily available specialty journals.
"It's going to be a real boon to professionals, who will be able to get journals," he said. "It's just as economical to do one book as 500 books."
The computer system, called Text Embossing Device 600, will be available to Hadley's 4,000 students worldwide. The students range from children to senior citizens and the school offers self-improvement, vocational, high-tech, and parent-child courses.
The new system already is being used to produce its first book. The topic, not surprisingly, is computers.