History Behind the SignWriter Computer Program

SignWriting was written by hand with ink pens from 1974-1984. Like monks who used to write the Bible by hand, complete newspapers were "inked" in SignWriting from 1981-1984.

Then, in 1986, Richard Gleaves, a young computer programmer from UCSD, donated his time to develop a way to type SignWriting by computer. We had been told by others that it would be impossible to type the visual symbols of SignWriting, so this was a tremendous gift.

Richard Gleaves designed and programmed SignWriter, versions 1.0-4.4, first on the Apple //e, then on the Apple //c, and later it was "ported" to MS-DOS on IBM compatibles. SignWriter 4.4 in MS-DOS is still used worldwide and can be downloaded for free on the SignWriting Web Site:

Download SignWriter Shareware
version 4.4 for MS-DOS

SignWriter also comes in a package, with a three ringed hardbacked notebook with five instruction manuals and seven floppy disks. It is an "international package", including signed languages and spoken languages from 15 countries. Eight spoken languages - Danish, English, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish, are available on the screen. SignWriter's dictionaries are used daily by hundreds of Deaf people.

In 1996, after ten years of working with SignWriter, Richard Gleaves got a job at Qualcomm, and decided to pass the baton to other programmers. If MS-DOS were not an "out-of-date" operating system, we would be happy to keep SignWriter just as it is! It is an excellent program.

But the world of computers changed, and software must change to match the new technologies. We therefore had no choice but to start the large task of designing a new version of SignWriter, written as a java application. Java is a new and highly flexible programming language. In 1997 we worked with java programmers at DTAI Software in San Diego. Transferring SignWriter from MS-DOS to java turned out to be harder and more costly than expected, since it is not a "direct port". Much of the program has to be re-designed and re-written. Three programmers worked on SignWriter 5.0 in 1997-1998...Rich Kadel, Chris Priebe and Larry Peranich, who donated some of his time. But by Spring, 1999, SignWriter 5.0 in java was still not "up and running".

Programmer Richard Johnston worked long hours in the summer of 99, creating a flexible user's interface that is unlike any other. Users can change their Menus into different spoken or signed languages at will, or can change to international icons, if they do not know languages well. This is wonderful for people with low language skills. Teachers can use the Menus to teach their students languages - a very unique and different idea. SUN Computers, the developers of java, asked us to write an article about SignWriter, to be published on the SUN web site in the Fall.

Programming of SignWriter 5.0 in the Summer of 1999 was made possible by funding from several California foundations, including the Parker Foundation in San Diego, the Hoag Family Foundation in Newport Beach, Hewlett Packard (they donated a computer), San Diego Gas & Electric and Macromedia Software in San Francisco (donated Fontographer software for creating TrueType Fonts.).