Braille – Syd Smith and Chris Fisher.

A few weeks ago I was wandering around the Connecting Manchester exhibition at MOSI with my wife when we spotted a braille computer with a label on it that read Programs by Chris Fisher:

Talking Braille Dots Machine

Some long-lost memories flickered into life and I said ‘I think that’s my dad’. My dad was incredibly talented at making things, originally working as a research chemist he retrained as a computer programmer and is the reason I write software today. He worked on the BBC Micro and me and my step-brother spent many happy Saturdays fighting over whose turn it was on Elite or Chuckie Egg. After complaints from my step-mother about the noise coming from the speaker dad drilled a tidy hole in the case, fitted a headphone jack, and wired it up.

After seeing the machine I recalled dad doing some work with braille, the BBC Micro, and early speech synthesis. I checked with my mother and she confirmed that he was involved in some work to help blind children learn braille. One of the other braille machines in the exhibition had an old label on with the address of Syd Smith who had designed the Talking Braille Dots machine, I wrote Syd a letter and a week or two later I got an email from his widow Mavis confirming that dad had worked with her son Richard and husband Syd on the project:

I have kept all the information about the work that they did. If you wish it would be better for us to meet and I would be pleased for you to come here and look at papers that were written on the subject

I visited Mavis and learned that Syd had worked at Shawgrove School for the Visually Impaired in West Didsbury, Syd was passionate about finding a better way to help children learn braille and somehow my father got involved in the project (possibly due to working with the Open University, just up the road at the Fielden Park campus where there was a computer suite full of BBC Micros).

Syd Smith's braille papers

When I started looking into all this I had a vague fantasy of someone somewhere still having a floppy disk with my dads software on, incredibly amongst the papers and letters is a full print-out of the sourcecode for an application my Dad had written called StarSpell:

StarSpell by Chris Fisher

StarSpell ran on a BBC Micro and let a teacher select a list of words from a dictionary inside the program, the user then had to input the correct braille symbols using the Talking Braille Dots machine (which would reply ‘That is correct. Well done.’).

There’s much more to this story, Syd’s hard work was never properly recognised, although someone else did shamelessly take the credit and even won an award from the BBC (this kind of thing still happens all the time in the tech world today). For me it’s been a happy reminder of my dad at his best, he died when I was 15 and it took me over a decade to recover (and finally grow up).

With many thanks to Mavis Smith for helping me put all the pieces together.