by Edward T. Morman
From Barbara Pierce: The following article is reprinted from Great Lives from History: Inventors and Inventions, pages 127 to 129, published by Salem Press, copyright 2010. It includes 409 essays covering 413 individual inventors from around the world and throughout history. The criteria for inclusion in the publication included the inventors’ fame, the significance of their inventions, the amount of time they spent inventing, their representation among world inventors, and their interest to high school, undergraduate, and general readers. For purposes of this publication, the term “invention” was defined to include not only mechanical and other physical devices but also processes…, software…, and systems applied to business management. The author of this entry is our own Ed Morman, director of the Jacobus tenBroek Library in the Jernigan Institute. Here is his essay, which is reprinted by permission of the publisher, Salem Press:
As a blind teenager, Louis Braille invented the Braille code, a system of raised dots that allows blind people to read with their fingers and to write using special tools.
Born: January 4, 1809; Coupvray, France
Died: January 6, 1852; Paris, France
Primary field: Communications
Primary invention: Braille system
Louis Braille (LEW-ee brayl) was the youngest child of Simon-René Braille, a harness and saddle maker, and Monique Braille. Braille’s parents were literate—a fact worth noting since in the countryside east of Paris this was unusual for people of their social class, even relatively prosperous people like the Brailles. A bright and attractive child, Louis was adored by his brother and two sisters and his parents. As a toddler he spent time in his father’s workshop, watching Simon-René work while playing with his tools and supplies.
In 1812 three-year-old Louis accidentally blinded himself with one of the tools. In spite of this disability, when he reached the appropriate age, his parents prevailed upon the parish priest to help enroll him in school. The local teacher quickly took note of Braille’s intelligence and ability to memorize readily what the other pupils were able to write down. Braille was understood to be one of the brightest boys in the school, and his parents, priest, and teacher all determined to find a means to continue his education beyond what was available in their regional market town.
Braille’s childhood in Coupvray was marked by the defeat of the emperor Napoleon’s army and subsequent occupation of the town by enemy soldiers. The difficult circumstances brought on by the occupation increased his parents’ concern about how their blind son would support himself in later life. For this reason, on February 15, 1819, Braille’s father took him to Paris to be admitted as a residential student at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth. The first modern school for the blind, the institute had been established three decades earlier by Valentin Haüy, a sighted person dismayed by the poor treatment accorded blind people. Haüy was determined to provide the blind with skills to support themselves by work rather than charity and saw literacy as central to his goal. He devised a system for embossing raised letters on heavy paper. These formed words that his blind students could feel, recognize, and therefore read. Haüy’s educational program included training in both trades considered suitable for the blind and academic studies such as mathematics, geography, and Latin. He also encouraged talented students to pursue musical performance.
This was a time of rapid change in France, and Haüy’s approach fared poorly during the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. From 1801 until 1815 his school was housed in a charity institution for blind adults, and between 1806 and 1817 Haüy himself lived in exile in Russia. When the school finally moved back into its own quarters, the students found that they were living in a wretched building several centuries old, dank, and with classrooms created by dividing up corridors. The new director, Sebastian Guillié, successfully revived Haüy’s system of embossed books, but his poor treatment of the students only exacerbated the effects of the unsuitable building on their health. Upon his dismissal (for an affair with a female teacher), Guillié was exposed as having lied about the students’ nutritional status. Many were underweight, and some—including Braille—were eventually to fall ill with tuberculosis.
In any case, Braille adapted quickly to his new home. His kind nature and native intelligence brought him friends among the students and recognition by the teachers and administrators. He learned to read using Haüy’s embossed letters and regularly won prizes as the best student in one or another subject. Braille could tell, though, that many blind students had difficulty recognizing raised alphabet letters, and few learned, as he did, how to write with pen and ink. Even particularly adept students could not develop much speed reading embossed letters.
Braille’s inventive genius was set in motion by an 1820 visit to the Institute by Charles Barbier, a retired artillery officer who had devised a military code using raised dots. Since the code could be read by touch, messages and orders could be decoded at night without a light that might reveal one’s position to the enemy. Disappointed in his attempts to get the army to adopt his system, Barbier realized that it could be used by the blind. He demonstrated its use to Guillié, who agreed to test the code with his blind students. Louis Braille was thus introduced to the idea of the blind reading with raised dots. He recognized the superiority of such a system over embossed letters, and he set out to produce a more accessible code than Barbier’s.
Braille invented the Braille code while a teenager, working at it during both his free time at school and his summer vacations at home. By the time he published the code in a pamphlet in 1829, Braille had taught it to many of his fellow students, who confirmed that it enabled them to communicate in writing as no other system could. Meanwhile, in 1821, Alexandre Pignier replaced Guillié as director. Pignier paid attention to his students’ interest in the Braille code, and, although regulations prevented him from making it part of the formal curriculum, he allowed his students to study it on their own. He took particular interest in Louis Braille, and, upon the death of Braille’s father in 1831, he promised that he would never abandon the blind young man.
As it turned out, Pignier was himself dismissed in 1842, the victim of intrigues by his assistant Pierre Dufau. As director Dufau tried to suppress the use of Braille’s code and force on students his own modifications of the Haüy system. However, Dufau’s assistant, Joseph Gaudet, noticing how well the students read and wrote using Braille, chose to publicly announce his support for the dots at the opening ceremonies for the Institute’s new building (where it remains in 2008, as the National Institute for Blind Youth). Publication of Gaudet’s speech in pamphlet form provided the impetus the Braille code needed to lead, in 1854, to its adoption as the authorized system in France. Unfortunately, this was two years after Louis Braille had died.
During his twenties and thirties Braille remained at the Institute as a teacher, supplementing his income with a job as a church organist. A talented musician, his 1829 publication included a code for musical notation as well as the written alphabet. During the years that students at the Institute informally (and sometimes surreptitiously) made use of his code, Braille continued to improve his system for music. He also undertook to invent a method for writing letters of the Roman alphabet using dots. Much slower than writing the Braille code, Braille saw his raised dot system as providing blind people the ability to communicate on paper with sighted people. In 1844 he met another talented blind inventor, Pierre-François-Victor Foucault, with whom he collaborated on a mechanical device, a predecessor to the typewriter, that produced raised dot letters of the alphabet.
By the time the Institute moved into its new home—a modern, salubrious building—Braille’s tuberculosis had progressed to the point where it was incurable by the means available at the time. No longer able to maintain his regular schedule as a teacher, Braille spent several extended periods at home in Coupvray. While in Paris he limited his work as an organist and reduced his teaching load. His condition became acute shortly before Christmas 1851, and he succumbed a few weeks later, two days after his forty-second birthday.
Although Valentin Haüy was not the first to create a system for the blind to read by touch, no earlier attempt had ever been institutionalized. Braille’s exposure to Haüy’s method and then Barbier’s code led him to create the first truly workable system for blind literacy. Readily understood by the blind and easily adaptable from French to other European languages, by the end of the nineteenth century many western European countries were using Braille in the instruction of blind children. The Braille code had a number of competitors (most based on principles derived from Braille) in the United States, and only in 1917 did it become the standard. In 1949 the government of India encouraged UNESCO to regulate Braille for use in all languages, regardless of writing system.
Until the development of sound recording and the subsequent adoption of discs and tapes for distribution to the blind by libraries, Braille and similar codes provided the only access to reading material for the blind. Braille literacy reached a peak in the middle of the twentieth century. More recently sound recordings and specialized computer programs have led to a decline in Braille usage and the claims by some that the Braille code is obsolescent. Among the organized blind, though, there remains great support for teaching Braille to visually impaired children, beginning at the same age as the sighted learn to read print. In 2009, to mark the bicentennial of Louis Braille’s birth, the United States mint is issuing a commemorative one-dollar coin.
Bickel, Lennard. Triumph over Darkness: The Life of Louis Braille. Sydney: Allen & Unwin Australia, 1988. A competent and accurate account of Braille’s life and influence. It tends toward the hagiographic and in florid language perhaps overemphasizes the devotion of the Braille family and Alexandre Pignier to the deposed French royal family and the Catholic Church.
Dixon, Judith, ed. Braille into the Next Millennium. Washington: National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, 2000. A collection of articles on the history and current status of tactile reading systems for the blind. Published in print and Braille.
Irwin, Robert B. “The War of the Dots.” In As I Saw It. New York: American Foundation for the Blind, 1955. A firsthand account of how the Braille code eventually became the standard in the United States.
Mellor, C. Michael. Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius. Boston: National Braille Press, 2006. The print edition contains numerous beautiful illustrations that are described in detail in the Braille edition. The illustrations of the Braille and Barbier codes and of Foucault’s invention clarify for the reader how they work. Although catalogued as a children’s book by the U.S. Library of Congress, this is in fact a well-documented book based on primary materials, many of which are reproduced within it.
Roblin, Jean. The Reading Fingers: Life of Louis Braille, 1809-1852. Translated from the French by Ruth G. Mandalian. New York: American Foundation for the Blind, 1955. This was originally published in French to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Braille’s death. Accurate but occasionally hard to follow, this short work provides the English-speaking reader a sense of how Louis Braille has been viewed in France.
The Braille Code
Louis Braille created the first truly practical system of tactile symbols that allowed the blind, using their fingers, to read with the comprehension and speed of sighted people reading print. He built on the efforts of two sighted people: Valentin Haüy, a philanthropist and educator who produced books with embossed letters of the alphabet for his blind students, and Charles Barbier, a military officer who devised a code of raised dots for transmitting messages and orders in the dark. Barbier’s code used thirty-six phonetic symbols, each represented by a cell of two columns containing between one and six dots. The Braille code was unlike Haüy’s embossed letters (which were the same shape as the printed alphabet) or Barbier’s dots (which were phonetic). Using the sixty-three possible combinations of between one and six dots in a cell of two columns and three rows, the Braille code has a one-to-one correspondence with the letters of the alphabet and punctuation marks. The smaller cell size was readily read by touch, and one-to-one correspondence with letters of the alphabet allowed for easier written communication between blind and sighted people. Braille’s system became dominant in France shortly after his death, and subsequently spread throughout the world.
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