Who Invented the First Flatbed Scanner?


Ray Kurzweil invented the first flatbed scanner. This reading machine turns print into speech for visually impaired people. (Kurzweil also invented the music synthesizer.) For his ingenuity and talent, Kurzweil received the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton in 1999.


  • Born in New York State in 1948, Ray Kurzweil showed interest in technology very early in his life. His fascination with language started at the age of 15 with the study of pattern recognition, then construction of his first computing devices able to recognize voice patterns. This passion and talent led him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he graduated in 1970 with a B.S. in computer science and creative writing.


  • Ray Kurzweil developed the flatbed scanner after a conversation on a flight with a blind passenger who sat next to him. The blind man expressed the desire to have a machine that could read all types of characters and fonts and transfer the content into an audible voice.


  • The 1975 concept allowed a user to place a page of a book on a glass surface, wait for the sheet to be scanned, and listen to the words being articulated one by one by the equipment. This first "print-to-speech" system made the news in 1976. With a price tag of more than $30,000, it ran on only 64K bytes of memory. The novelty of the concept was an optical character recognition system that could decode the text in any format, using pattern recognition algorithms, and convert it into voice signal. Although revolutionary technology, the early flatbed scanner lacked text accuracy. Recognizing the potential of the scanner, Xerox purchased the technology in 1980.


  • Since the 1970s, the reading equipment has decreased in size and can be integrated into a laptop for less than $1,000. Users benefit from great improvements in text accuracy since the first device. The latest versions support many computer formats and file types. It also converts from electronic input to Braille input. The system now includes photocopy, fax and email capabilities.


  • This technology opened a new channel of literary material to visually impaired individuals. In addition, it evolved to assist students learn how to read using audible and visual stimulation and feedback to guide the reader.

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  • Photo Credit the fine print image by blaQ from Fotolia.com
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