Jim Jespersen,  a National Bureau of Standards physicist, poses with the Emmy Award he helped win with his role in inventing closed captioning.
Jim Jespersen, a National Bureau of Standards physicist, poses with the Emmy Award he helped win with his role in inventing closed captioning. (Courtesy photo: NIST )

The three Boulder researchers credited with developing closed captioning never set out to change the lives of the hearing-impaired.

In the early 1970s, Jim Jespersen, a physicist, and engineers George Kamas and Dick Davis were working in the Time and Frequency Division at the National Bureau of Standards. (The name of the institution was changed in 1988 to National Institute of Standards and Technology.)

The men were studying the spectrum usage of television broadcasts. To increase availability of accurate time signals, they developed a way to hide time codes in broadcast television transmission.

That original project was abandoned because of the emergence of GPS (global positioning system) and other technologies, which proved better in delivering accurate time signals, according to engineer John Lowe of the Time and Frequency division at NIST.

However, the scientists noticed that after the audio and video elements were accounted for, there was still a large portion of the spectrum that went unused, said James Burrus, public information and outreach coordinator at NIST.

The researchers decided to utilize that available space to transmit a printed transcript of dialogue simultaneously with the broadcast. After that was successful, they then developed a way to hide that information for the average viewer. A special decoder was created for those who would be interested in viewing the transcript.

Sandra Howe, an NBS information specialist, practiced the technology with an episode of ABC's "The Mod Squad." The NBS scientists shared it at the National Conference on Television for the Hearing Impaired in 1971. NBS then partnered with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which made improvements to the technology.

The National Captioning Institute, a nonprofit organization, was established in 1979 with federal grant money to add closed captions to network television programs.

In 1980, the television networks ABC, NBC and PBS began transmitting closed captions on programs such as "Three's Company," "Disney's Wonderful World" and "Masterpiece Theatre."

The first children's program with closed captions was "3-2-1 Contact." The 1981 Sugar Bowl marked the first captioning of a live sports event.

Viewers wishing to receive closed captioning at that time could buy a small black box for a little more than $250 at Sears, Roebuck & Co.

In September 1980, the National Bureau of Standards, along with ABC and PBS, received the Emmy Award for outstanding engineering development for the "closed caption for the deaf system" from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Those involved in the project were invited to the White House to receive congratulations from President Jimmy Carter.

In a Daily Camera story about the award, Jespersen and Davis commented that the thrill of winning an Emmy was decreased a great deal because it was for work done a decade earlier.

In 1990, President Bush signed a bill requiring that all televisions 13 inches or larger sold in the United States after July 1, 1993, possess the capability for showing closed captions.

Today, the closed-captioning Emmy statue is proudly displayed in the lobby of Boulder's NIST.

Carol Taylor and Silvia Pettem write on history for the Daily Camera, alternating weeks. Email Carol at boulderhistorylibrarian@gmail.com, Silvia at pettem@earthlink.net, or write to the Daily Camera, 5450 Western Ave., Boulder 80301-2709 .