Today, people with severe vision-loss are able to read the texts of popular novels, famous classics, fascinating educational books and great songs, purely by running their fingers over sheets of paper filled with lines of embossed dots or bumps.
This system, called ‘Braille’, has existed for nearly two hundred years. Although it’s taken for granted today, the story of its creation is one of perseverance ingenuity, skill and bravery against incredible odds. Its story is the story of its creator, the young boy who helped the blind to read: Louis Braille.
This posting will examine how Braille created his system of writing for the blind, and all the struggles that he encountered along the way.
The World Before Braille
Losing one’s eyesight, or to be born without it, is one of mankind’s greatest fears. So much of our world relies on vision. In the world before Braille existed, blind people were ostricised by their communities. It was very difficult finding work for blind people.
They could only do things with their hands, and even then, only limited things. Making shoes, making baskets, weaving and brush-making, all, admittedly, rather low-paying jobs. And because blind people could not read or write, they could not communicate as effectively with other people. These restrictions made life for the blind extremely difficult. To say nothing about the lack of support-services. Charity was little, and specialist institutions nonexistent. The blind were left literally groping around in the dark with nobody to guide them.
Who Was Louis Braille?
The tragedy and innovation, the skill and determination of Louis Braille is one of the most famous and touching stories in the history of the world. It involved battling against incredible odds and the acceptance of limitations. This is the story of Louis Braille and his writing-system.
Louis Braille was born in the small village of Coupvrey (pronounced “Koop-vrey”), a few miles east of Paris, France, on the 4th of January, 1809. He was the youngest of four children born to Simon-Rene, and Monique Braille. His three older siblings included two sisters (Monique Catherine, and Marie Celine, born 1793 and 1797 respectively), and one older brother, Louis-Simon, born 1795. Young Louis was his father’s favourite child.
Louis Braille’s family was not particularly rich, but they weren’t poor, either. Monsieur Braille made a living as a saddler, a manufacturer of leathergoods for horses (specifically saddles, belts and harnesses). He made a tidy living and provided comfortably for his family.
Louis Braille had the habit of following his father into his workshop. Leather-working was dangerous stuff. Sharp knives and needles were required to cut, sew and puncture leather to make it into the products which Louis’s father sold around town. In a classic case of workplace negligence, Mr. Braille left his son working on a belt. Now all belts need belt-holes for the buckle to slip through. Young Louis picked up an awl (a long, sharp spike) to punch a hole into the leather strap of the belt. The spike slipped across the smooth surface of the belt, piercing Louis’s right eye.
The local physician was called for at once, and the wound was bandaged, but the infection could not be treated. Within weeks, Louis had become infected in both eyes, and by the age of five, had become completely blind, despite his parents taking him to every doctor, surgeon and specialist that they could think of!
Despite his disability, Louis’s parents raised their blind son no differently than any of their other children, although they did have to make a few changes. Mr. Braille carved out staffs and canes for Louis to use, so that he could tap his way around town, much like how a modern white cane is used. The boy was found to be singularly intelligent, and many of the village elders believed that despite his blindness, young Louis showed promise of being a scholar.
Louis’s parents were unsure about how to fulfill these wishes. The village schoolmasters and priests had told them that their son could flourish under proper tutelage, which they, unfortunately, could not provide. But there was hope, in the shape of a new institution in operation in Paris.
The National Institute for Blind Youth was established in Paris just a few decades before, in 1784. To be honest, it wasn’t much of an institute. There wasn’t much money, and the facilities were rather basic, but it was, nonetheless, a specialist school for the blind – the first ever to exist in the history of the world. And for a humble family such as the Brailles, most importantly…it was free!
The National Institute for Blind Youth
By the age of 10, it was decided that Louis could no longer remain in his hometown of Coupvrey. The educational facilities there simply weren’t suited to a child who couldn’t see to read, or write, or to do much else. So Louis’s parents arranged for him to attend the institute in Paris.
The Institute was operated by a man named Valentin Hauy. Hauy came from a prominent French family. He was a philanthropist, and his brother was a pioneering mineralogist, that is, a geologist who devotes his time to the study of minerals.
Hauy himself was not blind, but he felt moved to set up the institute to provide assistance to the blind. Here, blind students could mix and mingle with their own kind, they could feel safe, supported and loved. Most people didn’t know how to handle things like this, and so mostly, blind people were left to fend for themselves. But Hauy was determined to try. He even developed a method for blind people to read!
The Hauy Method of blind reading involved embossing letters from the alphabet onto thick paper, so that blind students could run their fingers across them and feel out the letters, and read the words printed in front of them. This was revolutionary, but extremely ineffective.
To begin with, you needed very thick paper, so that the copper wires doing the embossing wouldn’t rip it to pieces.
Secondly, the letters had to be supersized, so that the students could feel them with their hands. This made the books extremely large, and heavy.
And thirdly, the method used to make these books and documents was tricky. And they couldn’t be manufactured easily. In fact, they were so difficult to produce that when the school opened in 1784, there were only THREE books in the entire institute!
Apart from the lack of books, and despite the teachers’ best efforts, there were few other ways for the students to learn. Going outside into the streets of Paris for excursions was done only occasionally, with the schoolboys all holding onto a length of rope held by one of the schoolmasters. They became known as the “rope gang” because of it.
Despite all of Hauy’s good intentions, several of his students disliked the books. They were difficult to buy, difficult to read, difficult to carry around and there just weren’t enough of them! Louis Braille was one of the students who complained about their significant and several drawbacks, and pointed out that the books were designed to let blind students read the text of the sighted. What Louis decided they needed was blind text, written by blind people, which blind people could understand!
The Development of the Braille System
At the age of just 12, Braille was already forming his new method of blind writing. The story goes that he was inspired by a story in a newspaper which was read to him by a friend.
The story focused on an invention created by French army-captain, Charles Barbier le Sarre. Realising the importance for codes in transporting vital, but secret information, Barbier created a system of communications that didn’t rely on letters at all, but rather, on embossed dots and dashes, arranged on a sheet of paper. Because this type of code could be felt by the fingers and read perfectly easily, even in the dark, he called his invention “Night Writing”.
Realising the potential for his invention to help the blind, Barbier arranged a visit to the Institute for Blind Youth to tell them about his idea.
Braille was fascinated by this development, but the only problem was that Barbier’s system of writing was far too complicated! It would take ages to reproduce and just wasn’t practical. To begin with, it worked on phonetics, not on the alphabet. The bumps and ridges didn’t represent letters, they represented sounds! This made it difficult for students to read the texts, because it took so many more bumps to create a sound than it did to create a single letter.
Young Louie Braille was sure that this system of “night writing” could be of use to the blind, but it had to be improved and simplified before it could work!
By cutting out all the unnecessary bumps, ridges and dots in Barbier’s system, Braille was able to produce a “prototype” alphabet as early as 1824, when he was just fifteen! Using the same, thick paper that Barbier used, Braille punched out the dots in the paper using a leather-worker’s awl, the very same tool which had blinded him over a decade before!
Barbier, an aristocratic army-officer, was insulted that a mere child should think that his MARVELLOUS INVENTION!!…Should require “improvement” or “simplification”! And from a blind person, too! He was so outraged that he left the school!
But the seeds for Braille’s new system of writing were sown, and he began to work on his own form of embossed writing.
While some of the schoolmasters and directors were impressed by young Braille’s ingenuity and creativity, other teachers, like Barbier, felt insulted. Not because a child had dared to challenge the skills of an adult, but because a system of writing accessible only to the blind would mean that sighted people couldn’t read it. And if they couldn’t read it, then they wouldn’t understand it! It was many years before Braille’s system of writing would be adopted in the school, and not after a LOT of protest from both the teachers, and the students.
The beauty of the Braille system, vs. the Barbier system was that Braille’s was so much simpler. With just six dots instead of up to twelve dots, a blind person could feel everything under the tip of one finger, instead of having to stroke the page constantly, to make sure that they hadn’t left anything out. The six-dot layout of the Braille system meant that there was a total of up to 64 dot-combinations. More than enough combinations to represent the 26 letters of the alphabet, and all necessary punctuation-marks. Simple, and effective.
Braille was not only academically intelligent, he was also very fond of music. Since music is largely tactile in nature, there’s no need to see the instrument you’re playing, you just need to know where your fingers are, and where they have to go to produce the correct notes.
However, it still meant that blind people were incapable of reading sheet-music. To fix this, Braille also developed an entire musical system for blind musicians, based on his system of raised dots.
Adoption of the Braille System
Adoption of this new system of writing was slow. Even when Braille became a teacher at the National Institute for the Blind in Paris, the school still relied on older, less effective methods of communication.
The teachers at the Institute were unwilling to uproot everything that they had done, and change it for an entirely new system. In fact, when the institute’s history-teacher reproduced a history textbook all in Braille (using a newly-invented Braille typewriter), he was fired from his position!
Braille himself became increasingly ill and by his 40s, he was compelled to resign from the school due to increasingly poor health. It was strongly suspected that he was beginning to suffer from consumption (more commonly known today as tuberculosis).
Braille died in Paris in 1852, just two days after his 43rd birthday.
The Spread of Braille
Braille spread slowly at first. The first hurdle to fall was the National Institute for Blind Youth. Fed up with the teachers’ banning of Braille’s new system, the students insisted that they would stop attending school if the more effective Braille system did not replace the older and less effective Hauy systems. Eventually the schoolmasters had to back down and Braille’s system was finally introduced in 1854, two years after Braille died.
And yet, the school which had fostered the system’s creation was actually not the first to use it! Embarrassingly, it was actually the second! The Institute for the Blind in the Netherlands started using Braille’s system as early as 1846!
Throughout the 19th century, Braille became more and more widespread. By the 1870s, it was being recognised as being superior to other methods of blind communications. By the 1880s, it was being used in almost all respected schools for the blind. By the 1910s, it was being used in all blind schools in America. And by the 1930s, a universal Braille Code for the English language was developed and adopted, worldwide.
In Braille’s day, he wrote out his texts using a stylus, a wooden frame, and a special line-guide to produce his dot-writing. Today, the blind use something a bit more advanced than that. Although today there are even braille laptops and computers, for many, the mainstay of writing braille is by using this machine:
Developed in the 1950s, the Perkins Brailler has been used to type out braille for over fifty years. Essentially, it’s a braille typewriter. It has a carrying-handle, carriage return-lever, even a bell that rings at the end of each line. Along with the Perkins Brailler, there is also the more modern “Mountbatten” Brailler, named after Lord Louis Mountbatten, who left a bequest in his will, for the development of a braille typing-machine. The Mountbatten Brailler came out in 1991.