Women's History Month Part 2: Rachel Zimmerman-Brachman

October 11, 2017

Written by: Alicen Ricard

For the next installment of the Women’s History Month series, we focus on a woman in Technology: Rachel Zimmerman-Brachman, who invented the Blissymbols Printer when she was just twelve years old.

Source: CBC

What are Blissymbols? Blissymbols were invented in the 1940s by Charles Bliss.  People with disabilities have been using Blissymbols to communicate since the mid-1960s, where they gained popularity when Canadian therapists started using them with Cerebral Palsy patients, but they didn’t become accessible until the 80s. Traditionally they were used by pointing to a symbol that conveys what the person is trying to say and then an assistant would translate. It wasn’t until 1984 that this changed and became a revolutionary new way to communicate.


Here’s where Rachel Zimmerman-Brachman comes into it. She was interested in science from a young age and started her career in 1984 when she was twelve. She was working on it as a science fair project when she created the Blissymbols Printer. She’d been interested in Blissymbols since she read Blissymbolics: Speaking Without Speech by Elizabeth Helfman. She took the already existing Blissymbols system of pointing to the symbol and added a touch sensitive board which made it easier for users to communicate independently. Instead of using interpreters, they could just push the symbol and Rachel’s software would translate it into written word on a computer screen. This made communication much easier, and methods like e-mail possible. The system can now be used in other languages, such as French, and voice output has also been since added. She had no idea when she started this science fair project that it would end up being put in the World Exhibition of Achievement of Young inventors in Bulgaria, where she won the silver medal. She also won an YTV Achievement award for Innovation. 25 years later, she received another award from the Women's International Film and Television Showcase (WIFTS).

Rachel was born in London, Ontario in 1972. She got her Bachelor of Arts in Physics from Brandeis University in Boston. She then attended the International Space University in Strasbourg, France and received a Master’s in Space Studies. She attempted to receive a Master’s in astronomy as well from the University of Western Ontario, but she was forced to drop out after a car accident.

Source: Bust Magazine

She has worked in various institutions including the Planetary Society in California, The Canadian Space Agency, and the California Institute of Technology. Since 2013 most of her work has been with NASA. She has worked as an education and public outreach specialist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and works with the NASA Ames Research Center. Her work focuses on combining space technology with assistive intelligence, and it has been published in the Planetary Report, the Journal of the National Space Society, and the NASA’s Ames Research Center Astrogram.  She does a lot of work in education as well, including leading teacher professional development workshops at both the National Science Teachers Association and the California Science Teachers Association annual conferences. From 2013-2016, she was the president of Science Education for students with disabilities. Thanks to connections she made at the International Space University, she’s been organizing a Saturn essay contest for middle school and high school students in over 50 countries. Most recently she’s been working on Radioisotope power system public engagement and formal education for the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan.   

“’Go for it.’ That was the attitude that the teacher of my grade seven class encouraged each of us to have. He urged us to develop our own ideas and carry them as far as they could go.”
-Rachel Zimmerman-Brachman, Inventor

To listen to an interview by Rachel Zimmerman-Brachman about her career click here. And make sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more updates and posts on Women's History Month.