Louis Braille desperately wanted to learn but was frustrated by the lack of books for the blind.
Fully sightless by age 5 due to an accident, his school had only a few tomes that used large, raised letters that filled bulky volumes, without providing much information.
They were also difficult to understand, as readers had to feel each letter, figure out what the word was and then the entire sentence.
But the blind weren’t expected to have much education anyway.
Frustrated, Braille began to experiment with codes that would let full books be published cost-effectively, books which could be more easily understood. He also worked out a system for the visually impaired to be able to write. By 15, he was ready to help others learn and communicate.
“Unfortunately, the French education establishment for the blind, who weren’t sightless themselves, didn’t understand the advantages of his system,” Euclid Herie, president of the World Braille Foundation, told IBD. “But he was doggedly determined and persisted in getting it accepted right up to his death. Braille enabled the blind to become literate in many countries before the general population, and he did more to empower the sightless than even Helen Keller.”
Braille (1809-52) grew up in the small town of Coupvray, 20 miles east of Paris, with his parents and three older siblings. His father was a successful maker of tack, the leather equipment such as bridles, halters and reins necessary for riding horses. As soon as he could walk, the precocious boy liked to play in the workshop and asked if he could try using one of the tools. That was forbidden until he was much older, he was told, but at age 3 he grabbed a tool off the bench.
“No written record has survived to detail the tragedy that struck the Braille family,” wrote Lennard Bickel in “Triumph Over Darkness: The Life of Louis Braille.” “Thus history is left dependent on reconstructions from local hearsay, from legend passed down among generations of relatives, neighbors and village families. … It seems likely that it happened while the father’s attention was distracted, as one local legend suggests, by the news of Napoleon’s Grand Armee crossing the Niemen to invade Russia as he talked with a customer.”
Different versions reflect what happened next, but according to the Louis Braille Museum in his former home, he picked up a pointed knife and tried to punch a hole in a strip of leather. It slipped and gouged his right eye. A doctor patched it and arranged for the boy to be examined the next day by a Parisian surgeon, who said nothing could be done to save the eye. It became infected, and that spread to the other eye through the sinus cavity. Within two years he was blind.
“As Louis’ other senses began to take over for the blankness in his eyes, his mind was quickly developing, too,” wrote Anne Neimark in “Touch of Light: The Story of Louis Braille.” “Intelligent beyond his years, he wanted to share in the work of the family. … Slowly, he learned his way around the house. … He was venturing out of doors by himself, and his father whittled a small cane for him. The sound waves of his walking told him if they hit against a tree trunk, a wagon or a stool, they made a different sound.”
The Braille Breakthrough
Louis learned from his father spelling and how to to trace leather letters of the alphabet to write simple notes. At the schoolhouse, the boy’s excellent memory of lessons gave him an edge over other students, though he had no books to read, and he could not write down homework. A former monk taught him about the Bible and literature in private lessons.
At 10, Louis won a scholarship to France’s only school for the blind, the Royal Institute in Paris. Students learned to read the 14 large books in the library that had been manufactured by the school’s founder, philanthropist Valentin Hauy. Wet paper was pressed against letters of copper wire to emboss the words.
Also, Louis was taught to play the cello and organ by ear and became a church organist.
In 1821, a retired French army captain, Charles Barbier, visited the institute. He had invented a code of 12 raised dots and dashes for silent communication — called night writing — by the army on the battlefield. It was based on what would normally be spoken sounds, but turned out to be too complicated for the military (it might take 20 signs for one syllable), but it inspired Braille to experiment.
Over the next three years, he invented a code based on letters, rather than sounds, using six dots in different positions so that each letter could be understood at the touch of one finger.
A sign above the dots converted them to numbers. He made raised dots with an awl, punching paper from the opposite side.
The new code enabled the blind to read a letter or book that used it, plus write by using a board he devised with a sliding metal grille that kept the lines straight.
In 1824, Braille tested his first version with delighted classmates and published his first book on the system five years later, albeit using Hauy’s embossed letter system.
Spreading The Word
Braille stayed on as a teacher and published a revised version of the first book in 1837, with a code that eliminated dashes.
The first book in braille came out the same year, “A Brief History of France,” and his textbook on math was published in 1838.
The next year, he produced a book with a new system, decapoint, that let the blind write in a way the sighted could read by emulating the shape of the letters in the French alphabet.
He also aided a former student who developed the “radiographe,” which could emboss the braille code quickly in the manner of a typewriter.
Yet the new directors of the Royal Institute were opposed to Braille’s system and continued to teach only Hauy’s. Finally, in 1844, the school moved to a new building, and at the commemoration ceremony Braille’s system was acknowledged as superior. But it would be many years before it was accepted elsewhere.
Twilight And Legacy
Braille had to retire to Coupvray in 1844 to recover from tuberculosis. He eventually returned to a light schedule, but died eight years later — two days after turning 43.
“The dots would win fame for themselves and their inventor, but only after three more decades of resistance,” wrote Neimark. “Some countries made confusing changes in the six-dot code. The British used three different grades of Braille dots, while America introduced a system of her own called New York Point. Only a small number of books was printed under each system, and the competition grew fierce by the year. As a result, the task of educating the masses of the blind stayed dismally at a standstill.”
Then came breakthroughs:
The World Congress for the Blind voted in 1878 to promote Braille’s original system to schools throughout the world.
A missionary in China found he could reduce the 4,000 characters of Chinese to 408 sounds, which he converted into braille in 1890, showing it could be used for the most complex writing systems.
A school for the blind in St. Louis tested all the finger-reading systems and found students could read much faster with braille, with all U.S. schools adopting it in 1917.
“In 1952, on the 100th anniversary of his death, Louis’ body was removed from the simple grave at Coupvray, and thousands of blind from near and far helped escort it to Paris, where they were joined by notables of 40 countries,” wrote Neimark. “The casket was lifted up the steps of the Pantheon building to receive the highest honor France can bestow upon its dead, burial among the most famous heroes of the nation. … He changed the course of civilization by reaching into the minds of his blind brothers, and blind children no longer are educated apart from their sighted friends.”
Invented braille code of raised dots so the blind could read and write.
Overcame: Few educational or work opportunities for the sightless.
Lesson: A bold innovation will encounter strong resistance, so have a long-range game plan.
“We must be treated as equals — and communication is the way this can be brought about.”
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