3 Fascinating Facts About Stephen Hawking
After falling while ice skating during his first year as a grad student at Cambridge University, Hawking was told he he had the degenerative motor neuron disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and had only 2 1/2 years to live. Obviously that prognosis was light years off, but it seems early onset of the disease was a blessing in disguise, of sorts. Most ALS patients are diagnosed in their mid-50s and live another two to five years, but those diagnosed earlier tend to have a slower-progressing form of the disease. Furthermore, the loss of motor skills forced the burgeoning cosmologist to become more creative. "By losing the finer dexterity of my hands, I was forced to travel through the universe in my mind and try to visualize the ways in which it worked," he later noted.
Although the doomsday predictions of his early doctors were off, Hawking did almost die after contracting pneumonia while traveling to Geneva in 1985. While he was unconscious and hooked up to a ventilator, the option of removing the fragile scientist from life support was being considered until his then-wife, Jane, rejected the idea. Hawking instead underwent a tracheotomy, an operation that helped him breathe but permanently took away his ability to speak, prompting the creation of his famous speech synthesizer.
Hawking's original synthesizer was created by a California-based company called Words Plus, which ran a speech program called Equalizer on an Apple II computer. Adapted to a portable system that could be mounted on a wheelchair, the program enabled Hawking to "speak" by using a hand clicker to choose words on a screen. No longer able to use his hands, Hawking now has an infrared switch mounted on his glasses that generates words by detecting cheek movement. He also recently had the communication technology overhauled by Intel, though he insisted on retaining the same robotic voice with its distinctly non-British accent he's been using for nearly three decades, as he considers it an indelible part of his identity.