BRAILLE, LOUIS (1809–1852), French teacher who devised the Braille system of raised-point reading and writing for the blind.
Louis Braille, the youngest of four children, was born in Coupvray (Seine-et-Marne), a small village near Paris. His father, Simon-René Braille, was a saddler by trade. When he was three years old Louis, trying to mimic his father, injured his left eye with a cutting tool. The eye became infected, the infection spread to the right eye, and the boy was eventually left completely blind. His parents nevertheless sent him to the village school at a very early age, while at home his father gave him small tasks to perform that helped develop his manual skills. When he was ten the family succeeded in having him admitted to the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles (Royal Institution for Young Blind People), located at that time in the old buildings of the former Saint-Firmin seminary in rue Saint-Victor, in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Paris. Louis entered the institution on 15 February 1819.
According to Alexandre-René Pignier, the institution's director from 1821 to 1840, who left a biographical report on Louis Braille, the boy soon showed great aptitude not only for literary and scientific studies but also for manual work and for music. Braille was twelve years old when Pignier had the institution adopt a nonalphabetical writing system for the blind, based on raised dots or points, which had been invented by a sighted person, Charles Barbier de La Serre. The boy tried out this new system and sought to suggest "several improvements" to its inventor. Barbier paid no attention to the young man, but Braille carried on with his thinking and experimentation, relying on his own insights and the critical suggestions of his peers. Pignier says that by 1825 the adolescent had already conceived the broad outlines of his system, the first published version of which appeared in relief in 1829. Pignier was well aware of the importance of Braille's method and encouraged its use within the institution, where it would eventually replace the Barbier system.
Upon its first formal presentation, however, the method was not yet perfect. Some of its signs used smooth dashes as well as raised points, and they were too hard to distinguish by means of touch from two points occupying the same position. As Braille continued to improve his method, however, the signs with dashes were soon jettisoned. He was appointed to a teaching position at the Institution Royale in 1828, and beginning in 1830 his system, as taught by himself, was used by his students for taking notes and writing homework. In 1837 Braille produced a second, revised account of his system under the title "Procedure for Writing Words, Music and Plainsong by Means of Points, for the Use of, and Arranged for the Blind." Like his writing system, the equipment used by Braille was built on that developed by Charles Barbier for his "sonography": a grooved writing tablet; a metal guide punched with three oblong holes corresponding to three lines (rather than six, as in the Barbier model, which relied on twelve-point combinations as opposed to Braille's six-point ones); a wooden frame enclosing the guide and attached to the writing tablet by hinges; and a blunt awl as the writing tool.
By 1837 Braille had already for several years been experiencing symptoms of the tuberculosis that was to cut his life short fifteen years later. This did not prevent him from continuing to work on writing systems or from addressing the problem of how the blind and the sighted might correspond with one another. He was thus able to perfect a device that could punch out patterns resembling ordinary letters and figures, so that the output was readable by blind and sighted alike. He described this solution in 1839, in a small work titled "A New Method for Representing by Points the Very Forms of Letters, Geographical Maps, Geometrical Figures, Musical Notations, etc., for the Use of the Blind." A former institution student named Pierre Foucault, who had a mechanical bent, immediately saw how well this invention would serve the blind, and his collaboration with Braille led to the first typewriter allowing the blind to communicate directly with the sighted.
The incalculable benefits bestowed on the blind by Louis Braille's inventions aroused great enthusiasm among educated blind people and admiration among many sighted teachers. The use of writing systems based on raised points was nevertheless somewhat eclipsed at the Institution Royale after Pignier went into retirement in 1840. His successor, Pierre-Armand Dufau, tried for a time to return to the earlier methods of reading and writing for the blind based on ordinary letters; students were still permitted to use the point-based system for taking notes, but very few books were now printed in this way. But Dufau eventually recognized the superiority of the Braille method, and it was definitively adopted by the institution in 1854.
Sadly, Louis Braille had died in the institution's infirmary on 6 January 1852, overwhelmed by the illness that had been besetting him for more than twenty years. All those he left behind remembered him as a modest, gentle man and a faithful friend, his sharp mind and great sensitivity often concealed by a perhaps excessive reserve. Braille was also a tireless worker, a talented musician, and an excellent teacher.
The austere and seemingly unremarkable existence of Louis Braille, marked by handicap and illness, might easily have remained sterile; instead, thanks to an enlightened intelligence, great courage, an unwavering scientific curiosity, and a desire to help his peers, it was extraordinarily fruitful. At the end of his life, short as it was, Louis Braille bequeathed to the blind of the entire world the means to gain full access at last to written culture, be it literary, scientific, or musical. It was not, however, until the Universal Congress for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Blind and Deaf-Mute, held in Paris in the context of the Universal Exposition of 1878, that the general espousal of the Braille system was approved by a large majority. Among European-language-speaking countries, only the United States waited until the twentieth century to adopt Braille (1918). Later in that century, the use of the system would be extended to African and Asian languages under the aegis of UNESCO.
Bicknel, Lennard. Triumph over Darkness: The Life of Louis Braille. London, 1988.
Henri, Pierre. La vie et l'œuvre de Louis Braille: Inventeur de l'alphabet des aveugles 1809–1852. Paris, 1952.
Pignier, Alexandre-René. "Notice sur Louis Braille. Professeur et ancien élève de l'Institution des jeunes aveugles de Paris." In Notices biographiques sur trois professeurs anciens élèves de l'Institution des jeunes aveugles de Paris. Paris, 1859.
Weygand, Zina. Vivre sans voir: Les aveugles dans la société française du Moyen Age au siècle de Louis Braille. Preface by Alain Corbin. Paris, 2003.
Louis Braille designed the coding system, based on patterns of raised dots, by which the blind can read through touch.
Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, France, on January 4, 1809, the only child of Louis and Constance Braille. His father made leather saddles and harnesses for farmers in the area. At the age of three, while playing in his father's shop, young Louis was struck in the eye by an awl (a pointed tool for piercing holes in leather or wood). Within weeks of the accident, an eye infection took away his sight completely. Few opportunities existed for the blind at the time, so his father urged him to attend school with sighted children. He was an excellent student, mostly because of his exceptional memory.
In 1819 Braille received a scholarship to the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute of Blind Youth), founded by Valentin Haüy (1745–1822). He continued to excel in his studies and also began playing the piano and organ. The same year Braille entered the school, Captain Charles Barbier invented sonography, or night writing, a system of embossed symbols (standing out from the surface) used by soldiers to communicate silently at night on the battlefield. The fifteen-year-old Braille was inspired by a lecture Barbier gave at the Institute a few years later. Braille adapted Barbier's system to replace the awkward embossed-word books in the Institute's library, which were the only thing he and his classmates could use up to that point.
Useful new system
Braille began experimenting with cut shapes from leather as well as nails and tacks hammered into boards. He finally settled on a fingertip-sized six-dot code, based on the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, which could be recognized with a single contact of one finger. By changing the number and placement of dots, he coded letters, punctuation, numbers, familiar words, scientific symbols, mathematical and musical notation, and capitalization. With the right hand the reader touched individual dots, and with the left hand he or she moved on toward the next line, grasping the text as smoothly and rapidly as sighted readers. Using the Braille system, students were also able to take notes and write themes by punching dots into paper with a pointed instrument that was lined up with a metal guide.
At the age of twenty, Braille published a written account describing the use of his coded system. In 1837 he issued a second publication featuring an expanded system of coding text. King Louis Philippe (1773–1850) praised the system publicly after a demonstration at the Paris Exposition of Industry in 1834, and Braille's fellow students loved it. But sighted instructors and school board members worried that growing numbers of well-educated blind individuals might take away their jobs. They decided to stick with the embossed-letter system.
Recognition after death
Braille became somewhat well known as a musician, composer, and teacher, but he grew seriously ill with incurable tuberculosis (a lung infection) in 1835 and was forced to resign his teaching post. Shortly before his death, a former student of his, a blind musician, gave a performance in Paris, France. She made a point of letting the audience know that she had learned everything she knew using the forgotten system developed by the now-dying Braille. This created renewed interest in and a revival of the Braille system, although it was not fully accepted until 1854, two years after the inventor's death. The system underwent alteration from time to time. The version employed today was first used in the United States in 1860 at the Missouri School for the Blind.
For More Information
Bickel, Lennard. Triumph Over Darkness: The Life of Louis Braille. Sydney; Boston: Allen & Unwin Australia, 1988.
Bryant, Jennifer. Louis Braille: Inventor. New York: Chelsea House, 1993.
Neimark, Anne E. Touch of Light: The Story of Louis Braille. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970.
Louis Braille (1809-1852) designed the coding system, based on patterns of raised dots, by which the blind can read through touch.
Braille designed a coding system, based on patterns of raised dots, which the blind could read by touch. Born in Coupvray, France, Braille was accidentally blinded in one eye at the age of three. Within two years, a disease in his other eye left him completely blind.
In 1819, Braille received a scholarship to the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute of Blind Youth), founded by Valentin Haüy (1745-1822). The same year Braille entered the school, Captain Charles Barbier invented sonography, or nightwriting, a system of embossed symbols used by soldiers to communicate silently at night on the battlefield. Inspired by a lecture Barbier gave at the Institute a few years later, the fifteen-year-old Braille adapted Barbier's system to replace Haüy's awkward embossed type, which he and his classmates had been obliged to learn.
In his initial study, Braille had experimented with geometric shapes cut from leather as well as with nails and tacks hammered into boards. He finally settled on a fingertip-sized six-dot code, based on the twenty-five letters of the alphabet, which could be recognized with a single contact of one digit. By varying the number and placement of dots, he coded letters, punctuation, numbers, diphthongs, familiar words, scientific symbols, mathematical and musical notation, and capitalization. With the right hand, the reader touched individual dots and, with the left, moved on toward the next line, comprehending as smoothly and rapidly as sighted readers. Using the Braille system, students were also able to take notes and write themes by punching dots into paper with a pointed stylus which was aligned with a metal guide.
At the age of twenty, Braille published a monograph describing the use of his coded system. In 1837, he issued a second publication featuring an expanded system of coding text. Despite the students' favorable response to the Braille code, sighted instructors and school board members, fearing for their jobs should the number of well-educated blind individuals increase, opposed his system.
Braille grew seriously ill with incurable tuberculosis in 1835 and was forced to resign his teaching post. The Braille writing system—though demonstrated at the Paris Exposition of Industry in 1834 and praised by King Louis-Philippe—was not fully accepted until 1854, two years after the inventor's death. The system underwent periodic alteration; the standardized system employed today was first used in the United States in 1860 at the Missouri School for the Blind.
Bickel, Lennard, Triumph Over Darkness: The Life of Louis Braille, Allen & Unwin Australia, 1988.
Bryant, Jennifer, Louis Braille: Inventor, Chelsea House, 1993.
Roblin, Jean, Louis Braille, Royal National Institute for the Blind. □
French educator who developed a system of printing and writing by which the blind could write in relief and read by touch. That system, braille, which consists of a six-dot code in various combinations, was officially named after him in 1834. Blinded at the age of three, he studied at the Paris Blind School, where he later became an instructor. He was an accomplished musician, and developed a separate code for reading and writing music and mathematics.