Converto-Braille History

The Beginnings

The Roloscope

The Converto-Braille

The Incorporation

The VersaPoint

The New Generation
The Beginnings:

Converto-Braille is nearly 30 years old. Officially established in April 1970, this private, non-profit organization was actually created much earlier through the vision of one man, Roland Galarneau. Born to a modest neighbourhood in Hull (Quebec, Canada), and visually-impaired since birth (with only 2% of his sight), he first spent eight years studying at the Nazareth Institute for the Blind in Montreal. Lacking the finances to pursue studies in science, he earned a living operating a canteen at the Iron Steel Company in Hull. The foundry closed after the Armistice in 1945, but Roland Galarneau found a job with the federal Department of Public Works: he swept floors, washed windows and helped the tradesmen. He married, and soon had a daughter to support, yet he refused to depend on anyone. He never accepted the limits of his disability, and for that reason, he enrolled in night courses at the Ecole technique, in electronics no less. At the same time, he taught himself the machinist's trade, while still employed by Public Works. As we will see, his knowledge of these two fields, combined with imagination and resourcefulness, would produce outstanding results. For twenty years, he worked as a machinist by day and studied engineering at the University of Ottawa and through correspondence courses by night, while inventing devices that would enable him to work with the same precision as a sighted person. In addition, he raised a family of five children.

The Roloscope:

In 1952, he reached a turning point: he completed construction of a microscope that allowed him to read printed material, one inverted letter at a time. He thus learned to read print, after having known only Braille. This microscope set the stage for everything else: he scanned information more quickly, but most of all, he could now do it independently. He read, hour after hour, at home and during his breaks at the shop, mostly publications on electronics; and as he read, ideas began to flow.

The Converto-Braille:

In 1961, his first major project came to him in a dream. Microcomputers had yet to be invented, and computers of the day cost a princely sum. There was only one solution: to build one from scratch that would transcribe written texts into contracted Braille, thus eliminating the need to know Braille in order to transcribe a book. For five years, he was gripped by this idea. He channeled his research and read, one letter at a time, until he developed arthritis in his shoulders. In 1966, he was ready to put his dream into action.

His device, the "Converto-Braille", was a home-made electromechanical computer linked to a teletype machine which fed its memory. It scanned and translated texts into Braille at a rate of 100 words per minute. Today on display at the Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa, the Converto-Braille machine required more than 10,000 hours of work by Roland Galarneau and a small team including some friends, his wife, his children and especially Adrien Filiatreault, an invaluable associate.

Once word of the invention spread, Jeanne Cypihot, a blind woman living in Montreal, offered him $12,000 to fund the project. This was back in 1970, at a time when computer chips did not yet exist. It took 1,000 relays and more than 100,000 connections before the computer operated properly. Everything was built with equipment on hand, including parts donated by Bell Canada.

The Incorporation:

As the project outgrew the capacity of one individual, the time came to establish a non-profit corporation: Services Converto-Braille Cypihot-Galarneau (now known as Convert-O-Braille). But funds were scarce. The inventor, discouraged by this constant dearth, considered abandoning everything and setting to work on the doctorate of which he had long dreamed. At that very moment, he received a first grant from the Local Initiatives Program: his doubts vanished and the future began to take shape.

Twelve employees were hired at once: some to operate the Converto-Braille, others to record books on cassette in cooperation with the University of Ottawa. These works comprised the first French-language tape library in Canada.

May 1972 was a time for celebration: the dream worked! With its customary clatter, the Converto-Braille translated a text written on perforated tape, then embossed it in Braille using a specially-designed typewriter. The proof was at his fingertips: Roland Galarneau read, word for word, a text entered at the other end of the room.

This success did not go unnoticed. The visually-impaired community regained hope. But the technology required further development: in the meanwhile, the collection of books on tape was growing, and would contain as many as 3,500 titles. In 1976, the Corporation began producing Braille books free of charge for visually-impaired students until it signed its first Braille transcription contract with the Department of Education of Quebec in 1978.

In the same year, it received a grant from the OSE project to replace the Converto-Braille with computers supplied by the Tortue company of Montreal. At the same time, Converto-Braille programs were transferred onto micro-chips: it was the second generation of the same program.

With this new equipment, Roland Galarneau was able to begin publishing the Regional, a weekly Outaouais newspaper in Braille, and distributing it free of charge to approximately fifty visually-impaired persons who read Braille.

In subsequent years, the focus shifted to research and development. The production of Braille texts gradually increased, but had yet to earn a profit. It was not until 1987 that Braille transcription paid its way: until then, research and development projects had covered its losses.

The VersaPoint:

At that time, the most outstanding project is undoubtedly the Grapho-Braille terminal which enabled users to connect with data banks, such as those belonging to government. Once contact is made, a printer transcribes what appears on the screen. The visually impaired can then query the data bank and obtain the requested information in Braille. It was this Braille printer, incidentally, that a Californian company, Telesensory System Inc. (TSI), purchased and distributed throughout the world under the tradename Versapoint.

One project quickly followed another: a rapid printer (l,000 - l,500 pages/hour), exploring the potential of the new optical scanners and, of course, transcription of the illustrated Petit Larousse dictionary into Braille. This international first required 30 months of experimentation and work, as well as a $125,000 grant from the Secretary of State. Thus, in January 1988, Convert-O-Braille launched the only complete French-language dictionary available on diskettes for the VersaBraille computer, specially designed for the blind.

Roland Galarneau received various awards in honour of his achievements: the Order of Canada in 1976, the Quebec Communications Award for Research in 1984, the Inuksuk Award of the federal Department of Communications in 1987, not to mention being named researcher of the year in 1988 by the Conseil du loisir scientifique de l'Outaouais.

In early 1987, after almost twenty years spent building an internationally renowned research and production tool, Roland Galarneau took a well-deserved retirement. He is now pursuing research at home, while his son, Jean, has taken charge of the Corporation's affairs.

The New Generation:

The new Chief Executive Officer of Convert-O-Braille began by launching thorough corporate reorganization and moved the company to more functional premises in December 1987; Braille production had been restructured around IBM-PC microcomputers; The Converto-Braille was adapted for this type of computer and launched under the name Converto -- in keeping with tradition -- in the fall of 1989. The same year, Convert-O-Braille purchased a new high performance interpoint Braille printer, the Braillo 200 from Norway, which could print 720 pages an hour.

The twentieth anniversary celebrations were a perfect opportunity to honour Roland Galarneau. The company also launched new products: