Louis Braille was a French educator and inventor of a system of reading and writing for use by the blind or visually impaired. His system remains known worldwide simply as braille.
Blinded in both eyes as a result of an early childhood accident, Braille mastered his disability while still a boy. He excelled in his education and received scholarship to France's Royal Institute for Blind Youth. While still a student there, he began developing a system of tactile code that could allow blind persons to read and write quickly and efficiently. Inspired by the military cryptography of Charles Barbier, Braille constructed a new method built specifically for the needs of the blind. He presented his work to his peers for the first time in 1824.
In adulthood, Braille served as a professor at the Institute and enjoyed an avocation as a musician, but he largely spent the remainder of his life refining and extending his system. It went unused by most educators for many years after his death, but posterity has recognized braille as a revolutionary invention, and it has been adapted for use in languages worldwide.
Braille was born in Coupvray, France, a small town about twenty miles east of Paris. He and his three elder siblings – Monique Catherine Josephine Braille (b.1793), Louis-Simon Braille (b.1795), and Marie Céline Braille (b.1797) – lived with their mother, Monique, and father, Simon-René, on three hectares of land and vineyards in the countryside. Simon-René maintained a successful enterprise as a leatherer and maker of horse tack.
As soon as he could walk, Braille spent time playing in his father's workshop. At the age of three, the child was toying with some of the tools, trying to make holes in a piece of leather with an awl. Squinting closely at the surface, he pressed down hard to drive the point in, and the awl glanced across the tough leather and struck him in one of his eyes. A local physician bound and patched the affected eye and even arranged for Braille to be met the next day in Paris by a highly respected surgeon, but no treatment could save the damaged organ. In agony, the young boy suffered for weeks as the wound became severely infected; an infection which then spread to his other eye, likely due to sympathetic opthalmia.
Louis Braille survived the torment of the infection but by the age of five he was completely blind in both eyes.His devoted parents made great efforts – quite uncommon for the era – to raise their youngest child in a normal fashion, and he prospered in their care. He learned to navigate the village and country paths with canes his father hewed for him, and he grew up seemingly at peace with his disability.Braille's bright and creative mind impressed the local teachers and priests, and he was accommodated with higher education.
Braille studied in Coupvray until the age of ten. Because of his combination of intelligence and diligence, Braille was permitted to attend one of the first schools for blind children in the world, the Royal Institute for Blind Youth,since renamed to the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris.Braille, the last of the family's children to leave the household, departed for the school in February 1819.At that time the Royal Institute was an underfunded, ramshackle affair, but it provided a relatively stable environment for blind children to learn and associate together.
Braille was determined to fashion a system of reading and writing that could bridge the critical gap in communication between the sighted and the blind. In his own words: "Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we [the blind] are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about."
In 1821, Braille learned of a communication system devised by Captain Charles Barbier of the French Army. Some sources depict Braille learning about it from a newspaper account read to him by a friend,while others say the officer, aware of its potential, made a special visit to the school.In either case, Barbier willingly shared his invention called "night writing" which was a code of dots and dashes impressed into thick paper. These impressions could be interpreted entirely by the fingers, letting soldiers share information on the battlefield without having light or needing to speak.The captain's code turned out to be too complex to use in its original military form, but it inspired Braille to develop a system of his own.
Braille worked tirelessly on his ideas, and his system was largely completed by 1824, when he was just fifteen years of age.From Barbier's night writing, he innovated by simplifying its form and maximizing its efficiency. He made uniform columns for each letter, and he reduced the twelve raised dots to six. He published his system in 1829, and by the second edition in 1837 had discarded the dashes because they were too difficult to read. Crucially, Braille's smaller cells were capable of being recognized as letters with a single touch of a finger.
Braille created his own raised-dot system by using an awl, the same kind of implement which had blinded him. In the process of designing his system, he also designed an ergonomic interface for using it, based on Barbier's own slate and stylus tools. By soldering two metal strips across the slate, he created a secure area for the stylus which would keep the lines straight and readable.
By these modest means, Braille constructed a robust communication system. "It bears the stamp of genius" wrote Dr. Richard Slating French, former director of the California School for the Blind, "like the Roman alphabet itself."
The system was soon extended to include braille musical notation. Passionate about his own music, Braille took meticulous care in its planning to ensure that the musical code would be "flexible enough to meet the unique requirements of any instrument."In 1829, he published the first book about his system, Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them. Ironically this book was first printed by the raised letter method of the Haüy system.
Braille produced several written works about braille and as general education for the blind. Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs... (1829) was revised and republished in 1837; his mathematics guide, Little Synopsis of Arithmetic for Beginners, entered use in 1838; and his monograph New Method for Representing by Dots the Form of Letters, Maps, Geometric Figures, Musical Symbols, etc., for Use by the Blind was first published in 1839.Many of Braille's original printed works remain available at the Braille birthplace museum in Coupvray.
New Method for Representing by Dots... (1839) put forth Braille's plan for a new writing system with which blind people could write letters that could be read by sighted people. Called decapoint, the system combined his method of dot-punching with a new specialized grill which Braille devised to overlay the paper. When used with an associated number table (also designed by Braille and requiring memorization), the grill could permit a blind writer to faithfully reproduce the standard alphabet.
After the introduction of decapoint, Braille gave assistance to his friend Pierre-François-Victor Foucault who was working on the development of his Raphigraphe, a device that could emboss letters in the manner of a typewriter. Foucault's machine was hailed as a great success and was exhibited at the World's Fair in Paris in 1855.