Blind visionary

E&T recounts the fascinating life story of Louis Braille who, in 1824, when he was just 15, devised the six-dot reading technology that is the standard method of reading and writing for blind people to this very day.

Some success stories have inauspicious beginnings. Louis Braille was born in 1809 in Coupvray, near Paris, where his father was the village saddler.

Local legend has it that news of Napoleon's army embarking on its ill-fated march on Moscow distracted Braille senior one day in 1812. An unattended Louis had an accident in his father's workshop, and an awl - used for making holes in leather - left the three-year-old with a pierced eye. A consequent infection spread, leaving him blind by the time he was four.

For the child of a poor family, this must have seemed an early end to any hope of a useful life. But by the time he was 15, Louis Braille had devised a six-dot reading system, which today is the standard method of reading and writing for blind people or those with severe visual impairments, regardless of their language.

Life at the Institute

What saved Louis Braille was his intelligence and eagerness to learn. In 1819, aged ten, he won a scholarship to the Institute for Blind Children in Paris, one of the first schools for blind students. The school was then run by one Dr Guillié, an ophthalmologist who had founded Paris's first eye clinic - but it would be a mistake to assume him sympathetic; his journals refer to blind people as "degraded beings, condemned to vegetate on the Earth", and he ran the institute on Dickensian lines. Heating, food and sanitation were inadequate, discipline was harsh and lessons were mostly practical: pupils made their own uniforms and also slippers, buggy whips and fishing nets, which were sold - with Dr Guillié pocketing the proceeds.

In light of this, it's remarkable that any education went on at all; perhaps less so that the chosen methods were unhelpful. The 'raised type' system of reading - which involved shaping copper wire onto a page - made it impossible for blind people to write, and reading a book could take months. If Dr Guillié's regime had continued unabated, Braille's story might have had a different ending. But in a twist that Dickens himself would have enjoyed, the teacher received a sudden comeuppance and was fired for having an affair with the school's headmistress.

Under his replacement, André Pignier, the students' lives improved. Indeed, one of Pignier's first actions was to have far-reaching consequences: he arranged for Charles Barbier de la Serre to demonstrate his tactile writing system to the school.

Ecriture nocturne - 'night writing'

Barbier, then in his mid-50s, had been a captain in Napoleon's army, and his interest in tactile communication was born of his wartime experiences. War was a confusing business, fought against a backdrop of dense and blinding smoke; and even off the battlefield, enemy presence hampered attempts at communication. Barbier had once seen an artillery post destroyed, its position betrayed when a lamp was lit for a message to be read.

Ecriture nocturne - 'night writing' - was his solution. Developed at Napoleon's own behest, the system relied on touch, using raised dots and dashes in place of letters. Messages could thus be passed without speech or the need for light, allowing soldiers to communicate without alerting the enemy.

As a theory this was sound enough, but the system was complicated and the military rejected it. Nevertheless, on being presented with sample pages embossed with Barbier's code, Braille was fascinated - though he was also swiftly aware of its shortcomings. Barbier's system used a board divided into cells representing 36 basic sounds. It contained no punctuation marks, numbers or musical notation, and, in addition to dots, used horizontal dashes.

Braille was quick to spot the system's major flaw: that the cells were too large for a fingertip to cover. It was thus impossible for a user to move rapidly from one symbol to the next. Its advantages were apparent, however, and the young Braille applied himself to making improvements. Over the following years, he developed his own version, modifying the original until he had achieved a six-dot system that represented the standard alphabet in cells no larger than a fingertip.

By 1824, still only 15, Braille had a working version of what would become known as Braille. He had also perfected a writing slate - or planchette - allowing the user to place the patterns with absolute precision.

Establishment of a linguistic system

The system was immediately popular with his fellow students, particularly once Braille began translating books into his new system. But it met with resistance from the teachers, who disliked the extra work that learning the new system entailed.

But Braille persevered, combining his studies - he was by now an accomplished organ player - with his work on the system. In 1829, he published 'Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them'. Not long afterwards, he became one of the first blind professors at the school and began using his new alphabet in classes.

His system, though, remained misunderstood by those to whom it wasn't practically useful, and was resented by some who might have been expected to show greater understanding. The Institute's assistant director, P Armand Dufau, was a staunch opponent, and avoided any mention of it in his own book about blind people, published in 1837. This won a prize from the Académie Française, a success which allowed Dufau to manoeuvre Pignier out of office and become director in his place.

In this role, Dufau banned the use of Braille's system, imposing instead a tactile reading code devised by John Alston of Glasgow. He destroyed all works held by the institute in the Braille system and confiscated all Braille-writing equipment.

But the system proved resilient. Older students taught it to the younger in secret, and used it to send messages to each other and keep diaries. Impressed by this rebellion, Joseph Guaget - Dufau's assistant - taught himself to read and write in Braille, and subsequently convinced his superior that if it were to become known that his authority were being flouted, his job might be at risk. If he instead championed the system, he could share in the credit for its popularity.

The ban was dropped. Braille's fellow students subsequently petitioned the French government, asking that Braille be admitted to the French Legion of Honour in recognition of his achievement. The petition was ignored.

A dedicated life

For the remainder of his life Braille taught at the institute, a loyalty which probably hastened his end. A poor diet and unhealthy housing had been responsible for the school's large mortality rate and undoubtedly caused Braille to develop tuberculosis. And yet, despite frequent collapses and intermittent haemorrhaging, Braille continually worked at refining his code and had the satisfaction of Dufau devoting several enthusiastic pages to it in the second edition of his book, in 1850.

By the time Braille died - just two days after his 43rd birthday - the system that had come to be known by his name had set down firm roots.

The Braille home in Coupvray is now a museum. Braille was originally buried nearby, but by the centenary of his death, national feeling was such that it was decided that his remains should be moved to the Pantheon in Paris, the resting place of France's national heroes.

Local feeling was strong too: Braille had been a son of the village, which had a claim on his remains. The solution was Solomonic: Braille's hands were removed from his body, and remained behind at Coupvray.

When the coffin bearing the rest of him was carried through Paris, hundreds of blind people followed in its wake. The Times described it as "a strange, heroic procession".

It was no less than Braille deserved.

Standing ovation

Perhaps the only moment of public triumph that Louis Braille enjoyed in his lifetime came in February 1844, at the dedication ceremony of the Institute for Blind Children's new building. The recently converted P Armand Dufau described Louis's tactile writing system to the audience, and a number of students gave a demonstration. One child dictated a text to a second, who transcribed it in Braille. The results were then read out by a third child, who had been out of the room during this part of the demonstration.

The audience was impressed - with one exception. A voice cried out that they were being tricked, and that the student who'd read the completed text must have memorised it in advance. In reply, Dufau asked the man to produce some printed material of his own - which turned out to be a ticket for the theatre - and read it aloud to the child taking down Braille.

The man did so, and the child duly reproduced the text using Louis's system. The third child then entered and read back the information before the complainer had had time to return to his seat.

The crowd applauded the demonstration for a full six minutes.

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