The Life of William Shaw

William Shaw at work. Image from Popular Science, November 1924

William Shaw (1869-1949) was arguably the greatest Deaf inventor. He invented Deaf-friendly doorbells, alarms, clocks, baby monitors and phones.

Deaf at five from spinal meningitis, he was treated appallingly by many of his family who believed his deafness made him unfit to be a father.

He was born in St. John, New Brunswick. After losing his hearing his father would regularly take him by sea to India, hoping that the warm climate would help him recover his hearing. After his father drowned when he was eight, his family moved to Portland, Maine. In 1893, he graduated from the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. He found work in a carriage factory and an electric company. Later in his life, he spent five years working for Thomas Edison.

The gadgets he created used flashing lights and electric fans to alert people.

His teletypewriter would be invaluable for Deaf people in the pre-internet era. The user would type a message, the letters would light up at the other end of the line.

His baby monitor could flash lights if the parents were awake or shake the pillows if they were asleep (his alarm clock also did this).

His doorbells were actually doorlights, different colours for front and back doors. They also used a fan over the bed. Earlier versions sent vibrations through the floor but flashing lights proved more practical and popular.

Unfortunately, William Shaw never sold many of his gadgets, his only patent was for a shooting game. He did help raise money for Deaf charities and worked to get Deaf schools to teach electronics.

William married twice, both times to Deaf women. In 1907 and 1913, William had to fight two custody cases to keep his son William Junior. Born in 1902 to his first wife who died soon after, he was raised by his maternal grandparents. In 1907 William and his second wife won a court case and got custody of his son.

His family were divided. One of his siblings defended him, his mother and his other siblings testified against him. There was even a bishop, who worked with the Deaf community, testifying that Deaf people couldn’t raise children. The judge believed William, partly because his colleagues and landlady testified to his gentle nature.

In 1913, he had to fight another court case because his second wife was ill, his son stayed with the grandparents who refused to give him back. He won this too.

After this, William wrote:

“It is partly for the sake of the Deaf in general that I have fought so hard. Law is law and it is the duty of the Deaf to defend their own rights and fight for them if necessary.”

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Edmund West is an autistic freelance journalist who has been writing articles since 2007. He also works with Autistic adults and has an MA in history. He has written for several magazines: Press Gazette, Wired, Military History Monthly, History Today, etc.

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