James Morrison Heady
Historical Marker #2148, located in Elk Creek, Kentucky (Spencer County) remembers the creative spirit of James Morrison Heady.
Heady was born in 1829 in Spencer County, on a large family farm between Elk Creek and Normandy. Throughout his childhood, he suffered a series of unfortunate injuries that impaired both his sight and hearing. At the age of six, while watching a man chop wood, a flying chip struck his right eye, blurring its vision to the point of blindness. He was able to begin schooling as normal, until another accident befell him at the age of sixteen. While playing a game outside, he suffered a kick to the left eye, leaving him totally blind.
Undeterred by his blindness, James continued his life in Spencer County for two years, attempting to retain his independence. He enjoyed riding horses, despite the fact that he would fall from the saddle frequently. During one of these falls, his head hit a pile of rocks, causing a brain injury that would gradually rob Heady of his hearing as well.
Heady, still full of life, then decided to explore opportunities in education. He attended the Kentucky Institute for the Blind for about a year, and subsequently the Ohio Institution for the Education of the Blind for fourteen months. Through those years, he acquired interests in both English literature and piano.
Encountering difficulty in his writing and note taking, he developed his first invention, a variant on the diplograph, a machine that writes or prints textured letters for the blind. Heady’s diplograph used a needle to puncture paper, allowing him to feel the shapes of his letters and better edit his own work.
Beginning in his twenties and throughout the rest of his life, Heady made great contributions to the world of blind and deaf education. He marched at the forefront of efforts to expand access to books for the blind, traveling across the United States to raise money for the printing of raised-letter copies of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which were produced by Dr. Samuel Howe of the Perkins School for the Blind in the late 1850s. Heady’s interests also intersected with those of Dempsey Sherrod, a blind man from Mississippi who, with help from Heady, secured funding to establish the American Printing House for the Blind, which has operated in Louisville, Kentucky since 1858.
Heady went on to write several literary works of his own, the first of which, The Farmer Boy, a biographical work detailing George Washington’s youth, was published in 1863. He also wrote two historical novels, both set in Kentucky’s frontier days, and composed several books of poetry. The most prominent of these, The Double Night and other Poems, won wide critical acclaim from national publications like the New York Times, which praised Heady’s “deep sincerity of thought—a feeling genuine and not mimicked.” The Louisville Journal soon dubbed him “The Blind Bard of Kentucky.”
A gifted tinkerer, Heady created a number of devices and machines for greater blind and deaf accessibility. He continued to improve his diplograph, and designed a gate that could open with a pull chain, a folding bed, and a pedometer. He presented these devices to his peers at conventions, but never took out patents or attempted to profit off of his ideas.
He remained a talented pianist and taught the instrument until the age of forty, when his hearing finally gave out completely. Having also lost his ability to converse with friends and business partners, his inventive mind at once set upon the development of a new device, the “talking glove.” He printed every letter of the alphabet onto different sections of the glove, memorized their positions, and then had people “type” messages onto the glove.
Late in his life, Heady delighted in wandering the streets of Louisville, telling his stories to excited groups of children and letting them use his talking glove. He continued to improve educational accessibility, donating his entire raised-letter library, the largest independently owned in the nation, to the Louisville Free Public Library, retaining only one copy each of the Bible and of Paradise Lost.
After experiencing a debilitating fall in 1911, his stalwart health declined until his death on December 28, 1915. His efforts in the name of accessibility have not been forgotten, and his joyously optimistic attitude stands as an inspiration for us all.