A History of Captioning: Where It Started and Where It’s Going

A History of Captioning: Where It Started and Where It’s Going

Ever since Samuel Morse invented the telegraph in 1837, we’ve been using machines for long-distance communication.

But it wasn’t until the 1950s that captioning for deaf and hard-of-hearing people became mainstream in the film industry – and we had to wait for the Telecommunications Act of 1982 for mandated telephone access for all.   

When you look at it that way, captioned services have come a long way in 35 years.

Let’s see how far we’ve come. Take a look back on the history of captioning.


  • Bell Telephone System creates the “deaf set” for hard-of-hearing people and demonstrates transmission of pictures over telephone lines.


  • Sound was introduced to motion pictures, leaving millions of deaf and hard-of-hearing people without access to the movies.


  • The first captioning of a film was created by Emerson Romero, deaf cousin to the famous movie actor Cesar Romero.


  • Captioning in films becomes more mainstream, as “America the Beautiful” is the first film to be open-captioned in America. It was a 25-minute product created by Warner Brothers to sell war bonds.


  • Laws begin to be passed required captioning in Hollywood films as well as educational films – opening the door to equal access to educational media for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.


  • The first National Conference on Television for the Hearing Impaired is held in Memphis, Tennessee.
  • The Caption Center is established at WGBH, a PBS affiliate in Boston.


  • The Caption Center begins airing ABC World News Tonight with open-captioning four hours after broadcast, replacing commercial slots with deaf community news.


  • The National Captioning Institute (NCI) is formed to caption TV programs and produce decoders.


  • The National Captioning Institute begins closed captioning on ABC’s Sunday Night Movie, NBC’s The Wonderful World of Disney and PBS’s Masterpiece Theater.
  • IBM captions the first television commercial.
  • “Force 10 From Navarone” is the first home video to be captioned.   


  • First closed captioning of a children’s television, Sesame Street, is broadcast.


  • Congress passes the Telecommunications Act of 1982, expanding phone access for people with disabilities based on the universal service obligation.


  • The Olympic Games are captioned live.


  • First closed-captioned music videos are produced.
  • Major network prime-time programs are now 100% captioned.


  • TV networks log more than 2750 captioned hours a week.
  • Many new release home videos and cable channels begin to introduce captioning.


  • “Information Superhighway,” a speed by Vice President Al Gore, becomes the first captioned event on the Internet.


  • The first close-captioned video game is released, Acivision’s “Zork Grand Inquisitor.”


  • Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia is released with captions on CD-ROM.


  • CapTel Technology is approved by the FCC, enabling individual states to offer CapTel as part of their relay services.


  • In January, Hawaii becomes the first state to offer full service CapTel to its relay customers.
  • Many more states convert from consumer trials to full-service CapTel over the course of the year, By December the majority of states nationwide offer full service CapTel.
  •  CapTel is also available nationwide through the Federal Relay Service.  


  • Interest in CapTel service continues to soar.


  • America becomes the first country in the world to require all new TV programs be close-captioned.


  • Google introduces machine-generated, automatic captions on YouTube – a combination of Google’s automatic speech recognition technology and the previous YouTube caption system.


  • The FCC mandates that all Spanish-language programming first shown after January 1, 1998 must be captioned by 2010 (with some exceptions).
  • On October 8, President Barack Obama signs the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act into law – requiring smart phones, TV programs and other modern communication technologies to be accessible to people with vision or hearing loss.


  • The first CapTel phone designed for use with Wi-Fi is released.


  • CapTel introduces the first phone with extra-large display screen and font options for people who have difficulty viewing standard-sized captions.


  • CapTel introduces the first phone with touch-screen technology – including a full-color display and dial-by-picture capability.


  • CapTel introduces a speaker phone update for hands-free convenience while seeing captions of their calls.
  • Best Practices of Closed Captioning went into effect in March, which includes rules for accuracy, synchronicity, completeness and placement of captions.


  • CapTel introduces Bluetooth® capability


  • The FCC mandates that “near live” programming (less than 24 hours after recording) must be close captioned within 8 hours of initial airing. In addition, any live programming close captioned for television must be close captioned within 12 hours of the broadcast if delivered on the internet.


Who knows where caption technology is headed next? One thing’s for certain, it’s not about to slow down anytime soon.

CapTel continues to improve upon their voice-recognition (VR) technologies, to include larger vocabularies and data libraries in the future. As VR improves it will lead to even more capabilities for CapTel users.

Google continues to innovate new ways to promote universal accessibility – especially in the world of online video.

Multiple software companies are developing new platforms and smartphone apps to help make captioning even more mainstream.

In Manhattan, teen inventors have even created live closed caption glasses.


Sources: Impact Media; National Captioning Institute; Southwest Museum of Engineering, Communications & Computation; Ultratec.

Found in: Community | Technology