duPont Hospital for Children and the University of Delaware
Vol. 2, No. 1 -- Fall 1996


Consumer & Engineer: The Creation of a Device

This feature brings you two perspectives - a consumer perspective and an engineering perspective - on devices to help individuals with disabilities. In this case, our consumer and our engineer are the same person. Jim Fee is a biomedical research engineer who happens to have Cerebral Palsy. Jim ran the United Cerebral Palsy rehabilitation engineering department in Long Island, NY and worked for an augmentative device and software company in California. He helped develop a software program that Steven Hawking uses in his augmentative speech device. Currently, he works on vestibular stimulation in Cerebral Palsy at duPont Hospital for Children.

A Consumerís View

As a freshman in college in 1968 the most serious problem I faced as a student with a disability was my inability to write. I had managed to get through twelve grades of school using a typewriter, and when that failed, my fatherís handwriting. The freshman engineering curriculum presented a unique challenge: calculus. While the typewriter was designed for and does quite well at helping me create book reports and English compositions, it balks at integration signs. My father was less than enthusiastic about spending four years in a college dorm. I needed a typewriter that could type calculus as easily as the sonnets of Shakespeare.

One might assume that since the standard typewriter can type 66 characters, a bigger typewriter could type 250. I wrote a letter to IBM. At the time, the best IBM had to offer was two standard electric typewriters, placed side by side with a 36 inch carriage connecting them. The typist would type standard characters on one typewriter and then move over to the other to type another 66 characters. 132 characters was a far cry from the 250 I needed, not to mention the price of this beast..$2500.

When IBM came out with the selectric typewriter, based on an interchangeable ball I thought my problems were solved- just make a ball big enough to handle all the keys I need. In order to make the typewriter more versatile IBM made the type balls interchangeable. One could now type Differential-Integral Calculus but to do so meant changing balls in order to type every other letter. This proved to be less than the optimal solution.

I got by for several years by writing in pencil on large 18" x 24" newsprint pads. I found that if I wrote my letters about 2 inches tall, someone other than myself could read them.

Author's writing before the machine

In my Junior year, I took a course in analog computers, and discovered a fascinating device called an X-Y plotter. It didnít take me long to use this device to design an electronic pantograph which could convert my large arm movements into more or less normal-sized handwriting.

The device I designed was unique, so unique that I obtained a patent on it in 1973. Of course I expected to sell the idea and make it easier for others with my disability.

An Engineerís View

As a freshman in engineering, my greatest challenge turned out to be the accurate formation of the 184 symbols found in a normal calculus text book, having up until this point been hard pressed to write my own name! I say 184 with a fair amount of certainty, having counted every one of them when I first began looking for a solution to my problem: how does one who doesnít use pen and paper communicate mathematically?

The device that I eventually designed to solve my problem was a completely "consumer driven" creation, the consumer was me.

Consider the input to this device. There is actually good reason why my writing larger should produce more legible hand writing. For me fine motor skills are what I have the least of, by using the arm to draw a character Iím making use of gross motor functions. Using these gross motor functions as input to the device makes sense since it matches the machine to my abilities and "new" motions donít need to be learned.

Author's writing with the machine

An additional consideration when designing the input device is the effect friction plays in dampening unwanted movements. By the time I finished four years of engineering school I had calluses on my right hand the size of a raisin. Rubbing my hand (hard enough to form a callus) on the paper stabilized it enough to eliminate undesirable movements. This need for stability was carefully taken into consideration when designing the input device. Gross arm movements could easily be made anywhere in space. I was careful to design the system so that my hand remained in contact with a table top while forming letters. I believe the these two considerations, the use of gross arm movements and the effect of dampening of the table surface would only come to light via an intimate knowledge of the disability addressed.

After designing my first patentable device I learned the reality of the rehabilitation marketplace. I was asked more times than I care to remember: "How many of these devices do you think we can sell?"

Considering that there arenít many people with athetoid cerebral palsy in engineering, the answer was, "Not many". In 1983 my patent rights ran out without my ingenious device having made me a cent.

-James Fee, Applied Science & Engineering Laboratories