The Braille Monitor                                                                                                  July 2005

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How Braille Began
by Paula Kimbrough

 

The central and left panels of this collage are photographs of the monument to Louis Braille in the central square of Coupvray, France.   The square, where as a child Braille would have spent much time, is now known as Braille Square.  The bust at the top of the monument  was sculpted in bronze in 1887 by Etienne Leroux from the death mask of Braille created by Jouffroy.   In the left panel Kenneth Jernigan examines a low-relief depiction of Louis Braille teaching a blind child to read that appears on one side of the monument to Braille.  In the right panel Dr. Jernigan stands in one of the downstairs rooms in the Braille home now a museum.   A circular portrait of Louis Braille hangs on the wall behind him.

The central and left panels of this collage are photographs of the monument to Louis Braille in the central square of Coupvray, France. The square, where as a child Braille would have spent much time, is now known as Braille Square. The bust at the top of the monument was sculpted in bronze in 1887 by Etienne Leroux from the death mask of Braille created by Jouffroy. In the left panel Kenneth Jernigan examines a low-relief depiction of Louis Braille teaching a blind child to read that appears on one side of the monument to Braille. In the right panel Dr. Jernigan stands in one of the downstairs rooms in the Braille home, now a museum. A circular portrait of Louis Braille hangs on the wall behind him.

 

             From the Editor: Last winter President Maurer called to my attention an excellent document about Braille on the Web site of Enabling Technologies written by Paula Kimbrough. He thought that we should explore the possibility of reprinting the paper in the Braille Monitor. Officials at Enabling were gracious about giving permission but suggested that I contact Paula Kimbrough directly. She had recently come across additional information that she was eager to incorporate in the document before handing it over to us for publication. She has now completed her revisions and has also provided the following biographical information:

Paula Kimbrough
Paula Kimbrough

            Paula Kimbrough is the former publications editor at Enabling Technologies and originally wrote the first version of this article in 1998 for Enabling's Web site, <www.brailler.com. Over the years, as new sources became available, “How Braille Began” was updated, amended, and corrected many times. This newest version appears courtesy of Enabling Technologies.

            In earlier jobs Paula did computer training and administered an access technology subsidy program at Associated Services for the Blind and was also an editorial assistant for Dialogue Magazine. She is a graduate of Excelsior College in Albany, New York. Paula's email address is <pkkim@gate.net>. Much more on Braille's history will be available soon in a definitive new biography, Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius by Michael Mellor, which will be published later this year by National Braille Press.

Between Crusades

             The improbable chain of circumstance that would give birth to Braille began after King Louis IX of France suffered a crushing defeat in the Sixth Crusade. Already a religious man, Louis returned to Paris certain that God was making him suffer to teach him humility, which intensified his interest in charity. Among other good works he endowed one of the first formal institutions for the blind in the world in the year 1260, the Quinze-Vingts hospice (in English, "fifteen score" or 300).

            This name supposedly referred to the first inhabitants, said to be 300 French knights whose eyes were put out as a punishment by the Saracens during the failed crusade. This horrific tale is not true; it originated two centuries later in a fundraising letter to the pope. After the story was printed in a book in 1499, however, legend kept it alive for 500 years. This may mark another first--institutional fundraising as modern people would recognize it.

            The Quinze-Vingts did provide a unique shelter and community for blind Parisians. The largely self-governing hospice officially licensed its blind inhabitants as beggars in uniform, apparently as a kind of accreditation council in a world that feared being cheated by able-bodied frauds. The inhabitants (who never reached 300 in number at any one time) led lives that were more regulated but probably more secure than those of many of their contemporaries. Residents kept some of the proceeds of their own begging, but upon their deaths had to leave a portion of their property to the hospice.

            King Louis IX could not resist another attempt at a crusade in 1270. Almost at once he died of dysentery when a fever swept the French camp in Tunis. In 1297, the church canonized him as "St. Louis." He would also one day have a city named after him that, in an odd coincidence, would play an important role in the acceptance of Braille.

One Day at the Fair

            St. Ovid's Fair was one of Paris's lively and popular religious street festivals. Beginning in 1665, the fair ran from August 14 to September 15 each year and featured merchants, puppet shows, tightrope walkers, jugglers, animal acts, and food vendors. By the 1770's the fair moved to the Place de la Concorde, near today's Hotel Le Crillon.

            In 1771 a young man named Valentin Haüy visited St. Ovid's Fair and stopped at a cafe for lunch. What he saw there would change not only his own life but the lives of millions of blind people forever. In a crowd-pleasing gimmick that appeared only that year, a group of eight blind men from the Quinze-Vingts were performing a slapstick comedy act, pretending to be what many other blind people actually were--musicians. They wore dunce caps and huge cardboard glasses. A ninth man in a red dress and donkey's ears hung from the ceiling and beat time, suspended on a perch shaped like a peacock. The so-called musicians clowned for the crowd by singing and making squawking, discordant noises on old violins.

            The act was a hit. An almanac published a few years later said, "One could not have an idea of the success which this joke obtained," but Haüy felt "a very different sentiment" and was so sickened by the performance that he could not finish his lunch.

            Valentin Haüy was born in 1745 into a family of weavers. His father worked full-time at the loom and got a second job ringing the Angelus bells at the nearby Premonstrant Abbey. The monks there educated both Valentin and his talented brother, Renè-Just, who became a famous scientist. Valentin became a skilled linguist who spoke ten living languages in addition to ancient Greek and Hebrew. In 1783 he was named interpreter to the king.

            Haüy became acquainted with Abbé de l'Epée, founder of the first school for the deaf (also in Paris), and learned the manual alphabet. Haüy's own idealism and energy would prove extraordinary, and initially so would his luck. In the spring of 1784, while on another walk in Paris, he encountered the perfect student. In the most popular version of the story, as Haüy departed Saint Germain des Prés Church after services in 1784, he pressed a coin into the hand of a young blind boy begging near the entrance of the church. The boy instantly called out the denomination, believing Haüy had accidentally given him too large a sum. Haüy then had a startling insight that the blind could learn a great deal, perhaps even reading, using the sense of touch. This tale of a waif being plucked "from the gutter," as one author put it, may also not be true. There is some evidence the young beggar had heard of Haüy's interest in educating the blind and by some means was able to put himself in the path of opportunity.

            However they met, the beggar, seventeen-year-old François Lesueur, became Haüy's first pupil. François had been blind since infancy and had spent much of his short life begging on the streets to support his parents and five siblings. Haüy made up François' lost earnings from begging while he taught him to read by using wooden letters he moved around to form words. François was a very quick study and also the source of a major new insight. While looking for some object on Haüy's desk, François ran his hand over a funeral card on which the printed letter "o" was struck unusually hard, raising it enough to decipher by touch. Within six months his mastery of the basic elements of primary education stunned France's top scholars and scientists when Haüy brought him for a demonstration at the Royal Academy.

A School for the Blind

             Haüy made the most of this triumph, soliciting help from celebrities of the day, such as Maria Theresia von Paradis, a young blind girl with an international reputation as a piano prodigy. She shared her own literacy methods, which included a writing system of pinpricks. Maria also told Haüy of her correspondence with a talented blind German student named Weissenbourg, who acquired considerable education through the resourcefulness of his tutor Christian Niesen. Among Niesen's devices were a bent-wire alphabet and tactile maps made from silk embroidered onto cardboard. He also used a board similar to that of Nicholas Saunderson, the blind British mathematician, who had devised his own system for working out complex calculations. Saunderson, unfortunately, left no instructions on how the board worked. After his death his own family had to ask one of his colleagues how to use it in order to publish his last book.

            Haüy originally operated the school from his home, but as more pupils came, he was able to attract sufficient royal support to expand. He moved the school first to the Rue Coquilliere and then to the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Victoires. Haüy soon had forty-eight pupils, both boys and girls. Fourteen married couples eventually formed within the student body.

            Within two years the Academy of Music sponsored benefit concerts for the school while Haüy kept the royal funds flowing by taking the blind students to Versailles to entertain the king at Christmas with demonstrations of reading, arithmetic, and using tactile maps. Since the school had almost at once established a print shop run by the students to make embossed books, Haüy had them make up a run of specially-bound samples for the nobles at court. The text was Haüy's own landmark book, An Essay on the Education of the Blind. One of these court performances was attended by Marquis d'Orvilliers, a nobleman from a small village east of Paris--Coupvray.

The Arrival of Number 70

More than twenty years later in Coupvray Louis Braille was born, the fourth child of a saddle maker. In 1812 at the age of three, Louis injured his eye in an accident while playing with his father's tools. One local legend has it that the distraction that caused Louis's father to leave his workbench unattended (with its dangerous attractions for a curious toddler) was the news of Napoleon's army leaving France for the disastrous invasion of Russia.

            Despite (or perhaps because of) the ministrations of the local healer, an old woman who first treated Louis's damaged eye with lily water, and those of an eye doctor in a nearby town, infection set in. Other ineffective treatments followed, including a dose of calomel and a laxative. Over the next year the infection spread to the other eye. Louis Braille gradually became blind.

            To add to the troubles of the Braille family, Napoleon's constant war with the rest of Europe caused their town to be overrun by armies--not only the retreating French, but their enemies, the Prussians and the Russians. Over the two years from 1814 to 1816, a constant stream of soldiers camped in the Brailles' modest three-room home. Their never-ending demands for food, animals, and lodging caused severe hardship for the whole town. By 1816 war deprivations wore down the health of the citizens, and a smallpox epidemic sprang up. People, including Louis Braille's father, did not trust the government-promoted vaccinations, and many in the town fell ill.

            Fortunately, at about the same time other new people also came to Coupvray--a priest, Abbé Jacques Palluy, and a schoolmaster, Antoine Bécheret. They came to know Louis well and came up with the then revolutionary idea of allowing him to attend regular school. Both Louis's parents could read and write, and his older siblings had all attended the same school as children. Louis did so well there that, when the government decreed new local school methods that would have prevented Louis from continuing his education, Bécheret and Palluy approached the local nobleman for help.

            The nobleman was Marquis d'Orvilliers, a survivor of the recent smallpox epidemic, who, having seen Valentin Haüy's students perform at Versailles years before, agreed to write to the current director of the school, Sébastien Guillié. Louis's parents were not initially convinced that school in Paris was a good idea, but they were eventually persuaded, and Louis received a scholarship. In February 1819 ten-year-old Louis and his father made the four-hour stagecoach trip to Paris.

            Louis became the youngest student at the school and was assigned number seventy, which was attached to his bed with the straw mattress and to his locker, as well as to a badge he wore on his new uniform. This regimentation of identity was not the only change for the school since the happier times thirty years before under Valentin Haüy.

            After the revolution many of the nobles who had once helped the school were themselves killed, jailed, or in flight from France. For a time the school moved to a series of different venues and eventually shared an abandoned convent with the school for the deaf with unhappy results. The blind students were ultimately forced into the Quinze-Vingts, now overcrowded and chaotic and the home of last resort for elderly blind beggars.

            Dr. Guillié, running the school for the blind at the time of Louis's admission, was an ophthalmologist by vocation who had founded the first eye clinic in Paris. He subsequently survived the many changes of government during the French Revolution, the Napoleonic era, and the Bourbon restoration. Guillié's interest in reestablishing the school for the blind once the king returned to power was only mildly humanitarian, for he reclaimed only the most promising students from the Quinze-Vingts and sometimes used students for highly questionable medical experiments. He also made a fateful choice of buildings--the former St. Firmin seminary on Rue Saint-Victor.

            The old seminary was by then already over 500 years old and had endured hard use as, among other things, an orphanage founded by St. Vincent de Paul (the patron saint of charitable societies) and a house of ill repute. During the worst times of the Revolution, St. Firmin's was used as a prison for uncooperative priests and others with ties to the old regime (including, briefly, Valentin Haüy's own brother) who refused to swear allegiance to the new government. In a systematic massacre lasting several days, the imprisoned priests were murdered there in 1792. The interior was dank and cramped and in poor repair, with narrow stairwells, tiny rooms, and walls clammy to the touch. It smelled of mildew and other "putrid emanations." St. Firmin, however, had one surpassing charm for Guillié. Its existing floor plan enabled strict and total segregation of the sexes, which was of great importance to him. He even appointed a new strict female headmistress to supervise the girls.

            Guillié was careful to document not only his many frugalities in the operation of the school to get maximum value out of food and fuel, but much of his personal philosophy as well. The year Louis Braille was admitted, Guillié referred to blind people among other things as "degraded beings, condemned to vegetate on the earth."

            Not much vegetating went on during Guillié's tenure, and for the most predictable of reasons. Goods the students produced were sold in Paris shops and produced a vital stream of revenue, thus creating the first sheltered workshop. Guillié instituted harsh schedules and discipline to drive up productivity. Among their other skills the students wove the fabric for their own uniforms, which were, depending on the account, either blue or black. They made slippers, buggy whips, fishing nets, and straw chair bottoms. Ever enterprising, Guillié also obtained a contract for the school to weave sheets for Paris's huge system of public hospitals. The size of this task becomes apparent in light of the fact that the largest of these hospitals, La Salpêtriere, had a capacity of more than 10,000 inmates.

            For teaching, Guillié had relied heavily on older students acting as tutors or "repeaters" to give lessons aurally to younger students. Although the repeaters did not know it, Guillié had some success in reestablishing government support for the school and received a small stipend for the older students' instructional time, which he personally pocketed.

            The students were essentially confined in a workhouse as bleak as any in a Dickens novel. Classes and work occupied a rigidly scheduled thirteen-hour day. Students had one bath a month, scarce heat, and poor food--mostly beans and porridge. The school's muddy drinking water was unfiltered, direct from the River Seine. A dinner of dry bread (served in solitary confinement lasting up to two days) was a standard punishment for rule infractions.

            Guillié rationalized his methods as supremely enlightened, because, "all blind people have a decided taste for independence and liberty. Nothing, however, is more contrary to their real interests than the use of a thing which they could only abuse. The art of those, therefore, who are with them, consists less in satisfying them than in making them believe they are satisfied."

            Guillié's direction of the school had one bright spot. He apparently had a personal love of music, and thus music lessons were compulsory for all students. However much Guillié boasted of scrimping on food and heat, he spared no effort finding instruments for a school orchestra and recruiting excellent volunteer teachers from among local musical professionals. For students who were naturally talented, this was probably the happiest part of their school years.

            Louis Braille adjusted quickly to the life at school and made the first of the many friends there he would keep all his life, fellow student Gabriel Gauthier, who was one year older.

First Books for Blind Readers

              The few wealthy potential patrons who remained were often taken on tours through the school and workshop, with the students' reading of the few embossed books a highlight of the trip. Haüy's original method of embossing books was to apply soaked paper to raised letter forms so that the tactile shape of the specially crafted large round cursive letters remained after the paper dried. Pages were then glued back-to-front to produce a two-sided sheet. These books were, of course, extraordinarily slow and difficult to make and almost as slow and difficult to read, since the shape of each letter had to be traced individually. The finished books were often too heavy for the smaller students to lift. At the time of Louis Braille's admission, the school, now over thirty years old, had one hundred pupils and a total of fourteen embossed books.

            The school was now under the control of a committee selected by the Ministry of the Interior and dominated by a clique of nobles. In 1821 it became apparent that Guillié was indeed right to fear the power of sex, although not because of anything the students did. He himself was abruptly fired by the Ministry for having a love affair with the female headmistress, who may have become pregnant.

            The school's new director André Pignier was horrified by the decrepit building and immediately resolved to improve conditions, first instituting two outings a week so students could breathe fresh air and get some exercise away from their desks and workbenches. Students began to travel through the city, all gripping one long rope as a guide, to attend Mass on Sunday at St. Nicholas du Chardonnet Church and to go on a Thursday afternoon excursion to a local botanical park.

            Another Pignier reform was to stage a public celebration of the school's history, at which the guest of honor would be founder Valentin Haüy. Haüy, now an old man, had not been inside the school in years. Losing control of the school in the aftermath of the Revolution, he had struggled to maintain some teaching activity with private students and to survive on a small government pension. Finally, dismissed by Napoleon in 1802, he left France, accompanied by one of his most promising students, Alexandre Fournier. Together they spent over a decade in exile working with blind students in other European countries, including a long, frustrating stay in Russia trying to start a school there. Schools for the blind were an idea whose time had definitely come, with Liverpool (1791), Vienna (1804), Berlin (1806), Amsterdam (1808), Dresden (1809), Zurich (1810), and Copenhagen (1811) appearing in rapid succession using many of Haüy's ideas and methods. Upon his return to France Haüy, exhausted, destitute, and himself nearly blind, had been banned from the school by the unsympathetic Guillié.

            On the day of the ceremony to honor Haüy, Louis Braille, now twelve, along with several other students gave a musical program of songs from the school's early days and a reading demonstration using the original embossed books. Sometime that day Haüy, now seventy-six, and young Louis Braille may have met face to face. The following year Louis Braille was one of a small group from the school to attend Haüy's meager funeral.

Too Tough for the Artillery?

             Another visitor a short time later would have an equally large influence on Louis Braille's future. Charles Barbier de la Serre was another quick-witted survivor of the political turmoil that had engulfed France. Barbier, the son of the controller of the farms of the king, was admitted to a royal military academy in 1782. He fled the Revolution by spending some time in the United States as a land surveyor in Indian territory and returned to France by 1808, where he joined Napoleon's army and published a table for quick writing or "expediography," followed a year later by a book describing how to write several copies of a message at once.

            Barbier's interest in fast, secret writing was grounded in his war experiences. The French army under Napoleon had been defeated for the last time at Waterloo in 1815, but before that they had nearly conquered Europe and were considered even by their enemies to be the best artillerymen in the world. Barbier had once seen all the troops in a forward gun post annihilated when they betrayed their position by lighting a single lamp to read a message. A tactile system for sending and receiving messages could be useful, not only at night, but in maintaining communications during combat with its unique horrors for artillery crews. Dense, blinding smoke and thunderous noise combined to create hellish confusion. If the horses that transported the huge guns were hit, the surviving crew would find itself immobilized in a tangle of guns, harnesses, and dead or dying animals with no means of escape as the bullets flew.

            Barbier and the students of the Institution for Blind Children probably first encountered each other when both were exhibiting their communication methods at the Museum of Science and Industry, then located in the Louvre. Barbier had a device that enabled the writer to create messages in the dark; the students were reading, with the usual painful slowness, Haüy's books of embossed print letters. Barbier decided to take his own dot- and dash-based night-writing artillery code to the Royal Institution for Blind Children and interested Pignier, the new director, in his system. Pignier arranged a demonstration and passed around a few embossed pages of dots to the students.

            Louis Braille was thunderstruck when he first touched the dots of the night-writing samples. He had often played around with tactile writing at home on summer vacation in Coupvray. Neighbors later recalled that as a child Louis had tried leathers in various shapes and even arranged upholstery pins in patterns, hoping to find a workable tactile communication method, but with no success.

            Once he touched the dots, he knew he had found his medium and quickly learned to use Barbier's "ruler," which greatly resembles a more complex version of today's slate. He, his friend Gabriel, and other boys at the school taught each other the code by writing each other messages.

            Louis was also quick to see the problems with Barbier's system, which was never actually used by the army. Sonography used a huge cell, more than a fingertip can cover. The cells stood for thirty-six basic sounds instead of letters. A large customized board, laid out six cells across and six cells down, was used to write the sound symbols. There were no punctuation marks, numbers, or musical signs, and there were horizontal dashes in addition to the dots.

            When Louis met with Captain Barbier to talk about his ideas to improve the code, the captain, by now in his mid-fifties, was probably at first incredulous and then annoyed at having his ideas questioned by someone so young, inexperienced, and blind as well. Now that Napoleon's adventures of military conquest were ended, it seems likely Barbier had hopes of obtaining some kind of government recognition for the invention on which he had worked so long if it were adopted by the blind.

            Intimidated by the captain, Louis stopped asking his advice altogether and instead went to work experimenting with the code on his own. He had little spare time; he won prizes that semester in geography, history, mathematics, and piano, while also working as the foreman of the slipper shop at the school. Still, late at night and at home in Coupvray during the summer, Louis tried various modifications that would enable the unique letter symbols to fit under one fingertip.

            In October of 1824 Louis, now fifteen years old, unveiled his new alphabet right after the start of school. He had found sixty-three ways to use a six-dot cell, though some dashes were still included. His new alphabet was received enthusiastically by the other students and by Pignier, who ordered the special slates Louis had designed from Captain Barbier's original. Gabriel Gauthier, still Louis's best friend, was probably the very first person ever to read Braille.

            The obvious usefulness and popularity of Louis's invention did not make other parts of the students' lives easier. Bad times in France in 1825 caused the school's rations of fuel to shrink, and the already spare diet was reduced to bread and soup. The sighted teachers resented the new code with its implied demand that they learn something so alien. Worried for their own jobs, they complained that the sound of punching was disrupting classes. The school had finally achieved some financial stability with a government stipend from the Ministry of the Interior, but in 1826 the school bookkeeper fled after embezzling an amount equal to one half the annual budget.

            Pignier appealed to the Ministry repeatedly over the next several years for repair or replacement of the deteriorating building. His requests were usually ignored, though medical inspectors visited the school in both 1821 and 1828 and reported dutifully and ineffectually that "mortality among the students is high."

            Pignier arranged for Louis to become an organ student at a local church. The tradition of excellent musical training at the school has produced many first-rate professional organists, right down to our own day. By Louis's time over fifty graduates were playing in churches around Paris. Louis proved an exceptionally talented musician, was heard (and praised) by Felix Mendelssohn, and a few years later obtained the first of several jobs as a church organist.

First Books in Braille

             Pignier created still another opportunity for Louis, appointing him the first blind apprentice teacher at the school. Louis taught algebra, grammar, music, and geography. Despite his busy schedule he kept tinkering with the code. By 1828 he had found a way to copy music in his new code and eliminated the dashes.

            In 1829 at age twenty he published Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them, his first complete book about his new system. A few years later he, Gabriel Gauthier, and another blind friend and former pupil, Hippolyte Coltat, became the first blind full professors at the school. This meant they could leave the school occasionally without asking permission, got their own rooms, and had gold braid added to their uniforms as a mark of rank. All three new teachers used the new alphabet in their classes.

            The same year Louis Braille was drafted and was represented at the recruiting board by his father. A census record of this encounter shows that Louis was exempt from the French army because he was blind, as a result of which he "could not read or write," an ironic footnote for someone who had largely solved one of the great problems of literacy before he was out of his teens.

            Spending so much of his life in the unhealthy school building and living on a poor diet caused Louis to develop tuberculosis in his midtwenties. The diagnosis probably did not surprise him. For years his fellow students had become ill in such numbers that a visitor complained that the students could barely stand for long in a straight line for all the coughing and wheezing.

            For the rest of his life Louis had periods of health and energy interspersed with terrifying hemorrhages and near-fatal collapses. Still, despite his illness, teaching load, and several jobs playing the organ, he worked on refining the code. Although French does not use a "W," Louis added it later at the request of an English student, the blind son of Sir George Hayter, portraitist to the British royal family. He worked hard on the Braille music code as well, probably spurred not only by his own musical abilities but by those of his friends. Gabriel Gauthier was a composer as well as an organist, who would eventually produce his own work among the first volumes of Braille music.

First "Braille-Print" System

             Louis was a popular teacher, generous to his students with both time and money. He made many personal gifts and loans from his small salary to help them buy warm clothes and better food. He also saved enough to buy himself a piano so he could practice whenever he wished. Because students typically had no way of writing home to their families without dictating a letter to a sighted teacher, Louis invented "raphigraphy," a system which represents the alphabet with large print letters composed of Braille dots. Raphigraphy was labor-intensive--the letter "I" alone required the Braillist to punch sixteen dots.

            A blind inventor, Pierre Foucault, had been a student at the school back in the Quinze-Vingts days. He returned in 1841 and, when he saw what Louis Braille was doing, invented a machine called a "piston board" to punch complete dot-drawn letters. In 1847 he would invent the "keyboard printer" (essentially, a typewriter) enabling blind people to write to sighted people in black type. Louis Braille used it to compose letters to his mother back in Coupvray.

            The first working print typewriter had actually been devised in 1808 in Italy to help a blind countess produce legible writing for sighted people, but print typewriters were not produced on any scale until the 1870's. In the meantime the piston board (although expensive) itself became a common device throughout Europe.

            In 1834 Pignier arranged for Louis to demonstrate his code at the Paris Exposition of Industry, attended by visitors from all over the world. King Louis-Philippe of France presided over the opening of the show and even spoke with Louis about his invention but, like other observers, including officials from the Ministry of the Interior that supervised the school, did not seem to understand what he had seen.

            Louis revised the book on his alphabet in 1837, the same year the students at the school published the first Braille textbook in the world, a three-volume history of France. The school print shop was directed by Alexandre Fournier, the student Valentin Haüy had brought along on his flight from France over thirty years before.

What's Best--and Who Decides?

              Blind students must have found it electrifying to be able to write and read for the first time with speed and accuracy equaling or exceeding that of many sighted people, and it must have been thrilling to observe. The full extent of this triumph completely eluded authorities of the time, however. Neither Louis's book nor the students' new history of France in Braille was the most heralded publishing project at the school in the year 1837.

            Assistant director P. Armand Dufau, a former geography teacher at the school, published The Blind: Considerations on Their Physical, Moral, and Intellectual State, with a Complete Description of the Means Suitable to Improve Their Lot Using Instruction and Work. Dufau's book won the prestigious prize from the Académie Française which the year before had been awarded to Alexis de Tocqueville for his well-known book on America. Dufau, a staunch Braille opponent, who believed the code made the blind "too independent," included no mention of Louis Braille's innovation in his book.

            The prize from the Académie meant Dufau found his own fortunes sharply on the rise, and he may have used some of his new influence to get a better building for the school at last. In 1838 poet and historian Alphonse de Lamartine toured the school and was horrified by the squalor. He made a powerful appeal to France's Chamber of Deputies for a new building, declaring, "No description could give you a true idea of this building, which is small, dirty, and gloomy; of those passages partitioned off to form boxes dignified by the name of workshops or classrooms; of those many tortuous, worm-eaten staircases...If this whole assembly was to rise now and go en masse to this place, the vote for this bill would be unanimous!" Plans finally commenced for a new school building across town.

            Louis's deteriorating health forced him to turn down a job in a mountain locale that might have lengthened his life had he had the stamina to make the journey--tutor to a blind prince of the Austrian royal family. At last he took a long leave of absence to regain strength in Coupvray. Meanwhile Dufau engaged in intrigue with officials at the Ministry of the Interior and forced Pignier from his position.

            When Louis returned to the school, he found more bad news. Dufau, now director, was making more changes, among them deleting "frivolous" subjects like history, Latin, and geometry from the curriculum. Dufau had sufficient official support to obtain a large budget increase for the school and decided to revolutionize the school's standard reading medium--not using Braille's code but adopting a British system invented by John Alston of the Asylum for the Blind in Glasgow. Another print-like tactile system, Alston type differed from Haüy type in that it used very simplified letter forms without swirls or serifs, similar to the modern Orator typewriter font. Alston had printed an entire Bible (in nineteen volumes) using this new system a few years before, and Dufau was greatly impressed with it.

A Book-Burning and a Rebellion

              To enforce the new system, Dufau burned many of the embossed books created by Haüy's original process and every book he found printed or hand transcribed in Louis's new code--the school's entire library and the product of nearly fifty years' work. To make sure no Braille would ever again be used at the school, he also confiscated the slates, styli, and other Braille-writing equipment.

            Outraged, the students rebelled. Behind Dufau's back they wrote Braille even without slates. They sent messages and kept secret diaries written with knitting needles, forks, and nails. Dufau's punishments for Braille use, which included being slapped and starved, were completely ineffective. The older students taught the younger ones the system in secret. Braille, once learned, proved impossible to suppress.

            Finally Dufau's shrewd assistant Joseph Guadet, who had been watching the students, became an ardent Braille supporter, teaching himself to read and write the code. He must have persuaded Dufau that, if powerful people in government heard that the students were unified in willfully defying Dufau's authority, his job might be at risk. If, however, a student invented something successful, the school would share the credit, which could only enhance the reputation of its director.

            So, when the school moved into its new building in November 1843, P. Armand Dufau was a changed man, supplying every student with a new Braille slate. Euphoric at having defeated the Braille ban, students got up a petition and sent it to the government nominating Louis Braille for the French Legion of Honor for making true communication possible for the blind. The petition, however, was ignored.

Reversal of Fortune

              Louis's public triumph would finally come at the new building's dedication ceremony the following February. Dufau glowingly described Braille's system of writing with raised dots, even having students give a demonstration. An official in the audience cried out that it was all a trick, that the child writing Braille and a second child (who had been out of the room for the dictation) reading it back must have memorized the text in advance. In reply Dufau asked the man to find some printed material in his pocket, which turned out to be a theater ticket, and to read it to the student Braillist. The little girl reproduced the text, and another child read it back flawlessly before the man even returned to his seat. The crowd, convinced, applauded wildly for a full six minutes.

            Louis Braille spent the last eight years of his life teaching occasionally and Brailling books for the school library as he battled declining health. People were starting to call the dot system by his name, "Braille," and a growing number of inquiries about it were reaching the school from all over the world. When Dufau published the second edition of his influential book in 1850, he devoted several enthusiastic pages to the Braille system. Still, when Louis Braille died on January 6, 1852, just two days past his forty-third birthday, not a single Paris newspaper noted his passing.

            His system survived, and in 1854 France adopted Braille as its official communications system for blind people. At the school Braille's friends and former students energetically evolved new ways of working with the code. Victor Ballu experimented with a phonetic shorthand system and, in concert with Levitte, used two-sided stereotyping as early as 1867. In 1880 Levitte published a guide to the code using the same numbering system for the position of the six dots (calling the letter "a" dot 1 and so forth) that we still use today. By the late 1880's Ballu had devised a true interpointing scheme for printing two-sided pages.

            Levitte went on to become a beloved superintendent at the school but unfortunately died suddenly in 1883. A student at the time, Louis Vierne, later a famous organist, reflected bitterly that the system for choosing directors was still erratic, writing that Levitte's successor was, "a vain and stupid brute who understood utterly nothing of his proper role; he treated us like prisoners, and used to boast of how much he despised us."

            The Braille system spread to Switzerland soon after but encountered tremendous resistance in other countries, and often for the same reason: Braille's seeming opacity to the sighted because of its lack of resemblance to print. The fact that the blind might want to write because they had something to say, as well as read what others have written, incredibly seems never to have occurred to many of these educators. The writing factor--Braille is easy to write manually, while raised print letter forms are nearly impossible--was a huge factor in securing Braille's lasting place in its users' hearts.

            A later Braille reader, Helen Keller, wrote: "Braille has been a most precious aid to me in many ways. It made my going to college possible--it was the only method by which I could take notes of lectures. All my examination papers were copied for me in this system. I use Braille as a spider uses its web--to catch thoughts that flit across my mind for speeches, messages, and manuscripts." If Louis Braille had ever had the time to write his own thoughts on solving problems, dealing with hardship, and persevering through setbacks, few would deny that would have been a story well worth reading, regardless of what medium originally held the words.

            Curiously, many educators of the blind seem to have made a highly personal mission out of devising conflicting codes with little regard for their practical implications. Ferocious, competitive partisanship developed over these code systems, usually with no input from potential readers. The United Kingdom seems to have been the one bright exception. Thomas Rhodes Armitage, a wealthy physician who struggled with vision problems himself, convened a committee of other blind people "with knowledge of at least three systems of embossed type and having no financial interest in any" to evaluate the various codes and make a decision on which one would be best for Britain. During the two years the committee deliberated, they surveyed dozens of blind readers. Two years later, in 1870, Braille won, though it was many years more before it was fully implemented.

            While many of the competing codes did not thrive much past the end of the nineteenth century, the innovators they attracted often did move Braille publishing forward in unexpected ways. William Bell Wait, superintendent of the New York Institute for the Blind, energetically promoted a now almost forgotten code called "New York Point" in 1868. New York Point was a cell two dots high with a varying cell width and was used for years in book and magazine production.

            Though New York Point was eventually eclipsed by Braille, Wait more lastingly gave an eloquent argument in the Senate Education Committee that helped secure the first annual grant from Congress for embossed books for the blind in 1879, thus securing an important financial channel for publishing for the blind in the United States.

            The first American institution to adopt Braille was, ironically, the Missouri School for the Blind, located in St. Louis--a city named for Louis IX, Crusader king of France. Dr. Simon Pollak, a member of the school's board, had earlier traveled to France and was much impressed with the Braille system. By some unknown means students at the school learned Braille independently and taught it to each other after school hours, using it to pass notes to confound their sighted teachers. Initially the superintendent of the Missouri school resisted the use of Braille, saying it was "not pleasing to the eye," but his opposition did not stand. The school adopted Braille officially in 1860.

Modern Times

              The Quinze-Vingts still exists today, now a high-tech ophthalmologic hospital as well as a residence for the blind. The wooden stalls and benches used for St. Ovid's Fair were destroyed in a fire in 1777. By 1793 the only spectacle on the site was the guillotine. Over 1,000 executions took place there, including those of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette.

            Valentin Haüy is one of the great humanitarians (joining, among others, Abraham Lincoln, St. Francis of Assisi, and Florence Nightingale) immortalized in the stone carvings adorning New York City's Riverside Church. His life and work are also remembered in a museum on Rue Duroc in modern Paris, open Tuesday and Wednesday from 2:30 to 5:00 p.m., closed from July 1 to September 15 annually. Admission is free.

            François Lesueur, the beggar who was Haüy's original student, became the printer at the school, a teacher, and later the treasurer. The former St. Firmin's seminary on Rue Saint-Victor served as an army barracks and a warehouse before it was finally torn down in the 1930's. The last building Louis Braille would have known and where he died, on the Rue des Invalides, is still the location of the school for the blind today.

            Joseph Guadet, one of the first sighted people to learn Braille, would found, edit, and publish a journal entitled Teacher of the Blind and would write several books, including a history of the school. His primary mission, however, was always the promotion of Louis Braille's system. He famously declared that Braille himself was "far too modest to insist on the rightful place for his code in the life of the blind. We had to do it for him!"

            Guadet's history was not the earliest one written about the school. A student named Galliod in 1828 wrote Notice historique sur l'établissement des jeune aveugles (Paris: Imprimé aux Quinze-Vingts). One cardboard-bound copy exists in original Haüy type at the Association Valentin Haüy in Paris.

            Louis Braille was also not the only ground-breaking alumnus of the school's early days. In 1830 Claude Montal taught himself the craft of tuning on an old piano while a student at the school and eventually started a highly successful program to teach this lucrative skill to other students. By 1834 he had published "How to Tune Your Piano Yourself" and went on to open his own shop. The school has also produced an unprecedented stream of world-famous organists that continues to our own time, including Louis Vierne, André Marchal, and Jean Langlais. Among the present organists at Notre-Dame Cathedral is Jean-Pierre Leguay, who is also blind.

            Louis Braille's will, dictated to a notary less than a week before his death, included bequests, not only to his family, but to the servant who cleaned his room, the infirmary aide, his sighted guide, and the night watchman at the school. His clothes and personal belongings went to his students as mementos. He made one odd request, instructing friends to burn a small box in his room without opening it. After his death, they were unable to resist a peek and found the box stuffed with IOUs in Braille from students who had borrowed money from their generous teacher. The notes were finally burned in keeping with his wishes.

            Upon Louis Braille's death, Hippolyte Coltat served as his executor, inherited his piano, and worked hard to advance his legacy. His warm recollections of his teacher and friend at a memorial service at the school served as Braille's first biography. Gabriel Gauthier outlived Louis by only a short time. He also died of tuberculosis.

            Louis Braille's writing system eventually spread throughout the world and of course became known by his name. Curiously, considering that Louis's father was a harness and saddle maker, there is an English word, “brail, which describes a rope used in sailing and is derived from a fifteenth-century French word “braie” meaning "strap." Thus, it seems reasonable to speculate that the family name may have been derived from an ancestor's similar occupation.

            The Braille home in Coupvray, a short distance from EuroDisney, has become a museum. Louis Braille was originally buried in a simple grave in the small cemetery in his hometown. In 1952, on the one-hundredth anniversary of his death, public feeling grew that his remains should be moved to the Pantheon in Paris, where France's national heroes are buried. The mayor of Coupvray protested that Louis Braille was a true child of the area and that some of him should remain in his home village. His hands were separated from his arms and re-buried in Coupvray.

            The rest of his body was interred in the Pantheon following a huge public ceremony attended by dignitaries from all over the world, including Helen Keller, who gave a speech in what the New York Times reported as "faultlessly grammatical" French. She declared, to a rousing ovation from the hundreds of other Braille readers in attendance, that "we, the blind, are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg."

            As the coffin was borne through the streets of Paris towards the Pantheon, hundreds of white canes tapped along behind in what the Times, its own fortunes founded in literacy and publishing, called (with no apparent hint of irony) a "strange, heroic procession." The Pantheon is in the Paris's fifth arrondissement, only a few blocks from the old school for the blind.

            Despite the fact that the Braille dots do not resemble print letters (a complaint still heard today), Braille has been adapted to nearly every language on earth and remains the major medium of literacy for blind people everywhere. Debunking the myth that Braille is somehow too difficult for the sighted to learn, sighted transcribers have long been a primary source of textbooks for blind students. Thousands of these volunteers learned Braille as an avocation and churned out books one cell at a time from kitchen tables and bedroom offices everywhere for many years with little fanfare. Their efforts in the United States have, if anything, expanded over the last decade with the coming of the computer age and the mainstreaming of blind students in public schools.

            Whether through software translators or direct entry, Braille turned out to be extraordinarily well suited to computer-assisted production due to its elegance and efficiency. Braille displays for navigating and reading computer text in real time have become increasingly affordable and reliable as well. The computer age created an unprecedented and continuing explosion in the amount of Braille published and read in nearly every country throughout the world.

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