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First closed captioning

Emerson Romero was a deaf Cuban-American silent film star who lost his job when sound came to cinema – so he invented closed captioning.

Camera
Biswarup Ganguly, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

People who work with accessibility and technology have told me that every technological step forward seems to coincide with a step backwards in terms of access. The designers of new technology rarely consider the needs of people with visual or auditory impairments, and when they do it is usually bolted on afterwards.

Consider film. During the era of silent film, intertitles meant both hearing and deaf audience members could enjoy the action equally. Silent film was about physical acting, and that meant that deaf actors had the same opportunity to participate as others. Emerson Romero was just such an actor. Unable to hear from age six onward, Romero nevertheless acted in comedy shorts alongside W. C. Fields and Charlie Chaplin under the name “Tommy Albert.”

Yes, you could be a deaf actor in silent-era Hollywood with no problems, but apparently “Romero” was too foreign sounding. I was going to object to this on the basis that Rudolph Valentino was a huge star around this time, but then I discovered that Valentino too was a stage name (for Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella). At least Emerson Romero’s cousin – Cesar Romero, the original TV Joker from Batman – didn’t have to change his name.

Anyway, with the arrival of sound films Romero’s film career came to an immediate and abrupt halt. He left Hollywood (or, rather, Hollywood left him) and he went to work at the New York Federal Reserve Bank. But he never stopped thinking about the film industry, and nearly twenty years after his final film role he gave it something very important: the first system for closed captions.

Romero bought some films and physically spliced captions into them, cutting into the film and inserting his own intertitles of the dialogue. For a hearing audience it would not have been a nice experience – the soundtrack would cut out every time a spliced caption came up. But for a deaf audience it was a game-changer, the first time they could get a proper talkie film experience. Romero rented them out to deaf groups and community organisations.

More sophisticated captioning techniques came out later, including some experiments with secondary screens to display dialogue, before the closed subtitle captions we know today became the standard.

[Thanks to Disability History and Jaipreet Verdi for drawing my attention to this topic.]

Categories: Arts & recreation History Modern history North & Central America Places Screen & stage

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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