Louis Braille: Historical Perspectives

Blindness and Vision Loss

Author: Thomas C Weiss - Contact: Contact Details
Published: 2009/06/24 - Updated: 2023/06/16
Contents: Summary - Definition - Introduction - Main - Related

Synopsis: The history of Louis Braille, who became blind at the age of three and wanted to read, so invented Braille for the visually impaired. Barbier chose to take his dot-and-dash artillery code to the Royal Institution for Blind Children, where he caught the interest of Pignier, the new director. Pignier arranged a demonstration, passing around some of Barbier's embossed pages of dots to the students. When Louis touched the dots, he knew he had found the medium he had been searching for; he quickly learned Barbier's 'ruler,' which resembles a complex version of today's slate. Louis, his friend Gabriel, and the other boys at his school, all taught each other the code by writing messages.


There was a time when people believed that blind or visually impaired people would never learn to read, thinking that the only way a person could read was by looking at words with their eyes. A young French boy named Louis Braille believed otherwise. Louise became blind at three and wanted to read. Louis was aware that there was a vast world of both ideas and thoughts which were unavailable to him due to his disability, and he became very determined to find a way to access this world, not only for himself but for everyone who was blind.

Main Digest

Louis was born in 1809 in a small village near Paris; his father made harnesses and additional leather goods for sale to his fellow villagers. Louis' father used several sharp tools to punch holes and cut the leather he made his products from. One of the tools that his father used was an awl, which is a tool that resembles a sharp, pointed stick with a round wooden handle. Louis was playing with his father's awl when his hand slipped, and he accidentally poked out one of his eyes. The injury did not seem serious at first, but the wound became infected, and a few days later, Louis lost sight in both of his eyes. The first few days after losing his sight were very difficult for Louis, but he began to adjust.

Napoleon's constant war with the rest of Europe caused the town that Louis and his family lived in to be overrun by armies, not just the retreating French army, but the Prussians and Russians. From 1814 through 1816, a constant stream of soldiers camped out in the family's three-room home, demanding food, animals, and lodging, causing hardship for the entire town. By the time 1816 rolled around, war deprivations had worn down the health of the citizens, and a smallpox epidemic had occurred. The townspeople became ill and did not trust the government to promote vaccinations, including Louis' father.

At about the same time, a priest named Abbe Jacques Palluy and a schoolmaster named Antoine Becheret also came to Louis' town of Coupvray. The two of them got to know Louis and came up with the idea of allowing him to attend a regular school, which was considered quite revolutionary at the time. Louis' parents could read and write, and his older siblings had attended the same school as children. Louis did very well, so well that when the government decreed new local school methods that would have prevented him from continuing his education, both Becheret and Palluy approached the local nobleman for assistance.

The nobleman they approached was named Marquis d'Orvilliers. Marquis d'Orvilliers had survived the recent smallpox epidemic, and having seen Hauy's students perform at Versailles years before; he agreed to write to the school director - Sebastien Gillie. Initially, Louis's parents were not convinced that sending him to school in Paris was such a good idea. They were eventually persuaded, and Louis received a scholarship. In February of 1819, Louis made a four-hour stagecoach trip to Paris in his father's company. Upon arrival, Louis became student Number 70 and the youngest student at the school. His number was attached to his bed, which had a straw mattress, and to his locker and the badge he wore on his school uniform.

The school was run by Dr. Guillie, an ophthalmologist who had founded the first eye clinic in Paris. Guillie's interests in running the school for the blind were only mildly humanitarian; he reclaimed only the most promising students and sometimes used these students in extremely questionable medical experiments. The year that Louis Braille was admitted, Dr. Guillie referred to blind people as, 'Degraded beings, condemned to vegetate on the earth.'

Not much 'vegetating' occurred during Gillie's tenure. Goods produced by the students were sold in Paris shops, creating a vital stream of revenue and sheltered workshops. Guillie created grueling schedules and discipline to drive up productivity. Students at the school wove the very fabric for their uniforms; depending upon their account, they were either blue or black. Guillie also had students weave sheets for public hospitals in Paris; the largest had ten-thousands inmates. Students ate beans and porridge, had one bath a month and had low heat. Punishment involved dry bread and solitary confinement that lasted up to two days. Guillie described his methods as '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 that 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.'

Louis did manage to find a bright spot or two in all of this, believe it or not

Guillie loved music; music lessons were compulsory for every student - he made every effort to find instruments for a school orchestra. Guillie also recruited excellent volunteer teachers from local musical professionals. Louis managed to adjust to life at this school and made friends that he would keep for the rest of his life, including Gabriel Gauthier.

When he arrived, he asked his teacher if the school had books that a blind person could read; the answer was yes, but the books had letters raised up off the pages. Because the letters were so big, the books were huge, bulky, and expensive; the school only had fourteen books. Louis read the fourteen books available to him in the school's library, feeling each letter. It took him a long time to read a sentence. He could read a word in a few seconds, but by the time he reached the end of a sentence, he had nearly forgotten what the start was about; he knew there had to be a better way. He knew there had to be a way for a person who was blind to quickly feel the words on a page and read as quickly and easily as a sighted person. He set a goal of thinking up a system for blind people to read. He would think of an alphabet code to make 'finger reading' as quick and easy as sighted reading.

Louis loved music and was highly creative

He learned to play the organ and the cello at a young age and was such a talented organist that he played at churches throughout Paris. Music was his first love and a steady source of income for him. Louis had a great deal of confidence in his creative abilities and knew that he was just as intelligent and creative as any other person in his age group. His musical talents showed just how much he could accomplish, given the opportunity.

There came a day when chance walked through Louis' door

Someone at his school had heard about an alphabet code used by the French Army, a code used to deliver messages at night from officers to soldiers. These messages could not be written down on paper because a soldier would be required to light a match to read it, giving an enemy a target to shoot at. The alphabet code consisted of small dashes and dots; the symbols were raised off the paper so that soldiers could read the message by running their fingers off the paper. Soldiers, having learned the code, found that it worked well.

Louis obtained some of this soldier code and tried it out, finding that it was much better than reading the gigantic books at his school with the oversized, raised letters. Yet the army's code was slow and cumbersome, with dashes that took up a lot of space on the page. Each page could hold only one or two sentences. Louis knew that he could improve the army's alphabet in some way.

Charles Barbier de la Serre was a survivor of the political turmoil that had engulfed France; the son of the controller farms of the king and was admitted to the royal military academy in 1782. He had fled the Revolution by spending time in the United States as a land surveyor in Indian territory but had returned to France by 1808, where he joined Napoleon's army. Barbier published a table for quick writing or 'expediography,' and a year later wrote a book describing how to write several copies of a message at once.

Barbier's interest in fast and secretive writing was grounded in his war experience

The French army, under Napoleon, had been defeated for the final time at Waterloo in 1815. Before that, they had nearly conquered Europe and were considered the best artillerymen in the world. Barbier had seen all the troops in a forward gun post annihilated when they betrayed their position by lighting a single lamp they used to read a message. He knew that a tactile system for the sending and receiving of messages could be useful not only at night but in maintaining communications during combat conditions during the day as well.

Barbier most likely encountered the students of the Institution for Blind Children when both were exhibiting their communication methods at the Museum of Science and Industry, which was located in the Louvre at the time. Barbier had a device that enabled the writer to create messages in the dark. The students were reading Hauy's books of embossed print letters with their usual painful slowness. Barbier chose to take his dot-and-dash artillery code to the Royal Institution for Blind Children, where he caught the interest of Pignier, the new director. Pignier arranged a demonstration, passing around some of Barbier's embossed pages of dots to the students.

For Louis Braille, this was a moment of clarity

He had played around with tactile writing on his summer vacation at home in Coupvray. When Louis touched the dots, he knew he had found the medium he had been searching for; he quickly learned Barbier's 'ruler,' which resembles a complex version of today's slate. Louis, his friend Gabriel, and the other boys at his school, all taught each other the code by writing each other messages.

Louis quickly found some problems with Captain Barbier's system, which was never actually used by the army. Sonography uses a huge cell, more than a person's 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 to write the sound symbols. The system lacked numbers, punctuation marks, and musical signs; there were horizontal dashes and dots.

Louis met with Captain Barbier to discuss his ideas for improving the code

Captain Barbier, who was in his mid-fifties by the time, was most likely rather incredulous and then perhaps annoyed at having his ideas questioned by a young and inexperienced boy who was blind as well. Louis was intimidated by the Captain and stopped asking for his advice. Instead, he decided to work on the code on his own. He didn't have much time; that particular semester Louis won prizes in history, mathematics, geography, and piano while working as the foreman of the slipper shop at his school. Late at night, as well as at home during the summer, Louis attempted several modifications which would enable him to create the unique letter symbols to fit underneath one fingertip.

When his next vacation home arrived, Louis spent his time working on the way to improve this alphabet. His parents always encouraged his musical pursuits and his other school projects. Louis sat and thought about ways to improve the dots and dashes system. He liked the idea of raised dots but felt he could do without the raised dashes. He sat in his father's leather shop and picked up one of his father's blunt awls. An idea crossed his mind in a flash - the tool that had blinded him would be used to make a raised dot alphabet, enabling him to read! Over the next few days, he worked on an alphabet made entirely of six dots. The positions of the different dots represented the different letters of the alphabet. Using the blunt awl, Louis punched out a sentence. He scanned it from left to right; everything made sense - it worked.

October of 1824 found Louis unveiling his new alphabet right after the start of school

He had discovered sixty-three ways to use a six-dot cell, although some dashes were included. His fellow students and Pignier enthusiastically received his alphabet. Pignier ordered the slates which Louis designed from Captain Barbier's originals. Gabriel Gauthier, who remained Louis' best friend, was most likely the first person ever to read Braille.

By 1829, Louis had published, 'Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs using Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them,' his first book about his new system. A few years later, Louis, Gabriel, and another friend and fellow student, Hippolyte Coltat, became the first blind professor at the school. All three of them used the new alphabet in their classes. That same year Louis Braille was drafted and represented on the recruiting board by his father. A census record of the encounter shows that Louis was found to be exempt from the French Army because he was blind and 'Could not read or write,' a very great irony because he had largely solved one of the great problems of literacy before he was out of his teenage years.

Louis had spent much of his life living in an unhealthy school building with a poor diet; he developed tuberculosis in his mid-twenties. For many years his fellow students have become sick in such great numbers that a visitor complained that the students could barely stand long in a straight line because of all the wheezing and coughing. Louis experienced periods of health and energy mixed with hemorrhages and nearly fatal collapses for the remainder of his life. Despite his periods of illness, several jobs, and his teaching load, as well as playing the organ - Louis continued to refine his code. While French does not use the letter 'W,' Louis added it later due to the request of an English student who was the blind son of Sir George Hayter, a portraitist to the British Royal Family. Louis also worked very hard on the Braille music code. Gabriel Gauthier was both a composer and an organist, eventually producing his works among the first volumes of Braille music.

Louis Braille's will, dictated to a notary less than a week before his death, included bequests to his family, the servant who cleaned his room, the night watchman at the school, and the infirmary aide. His personal belongings and clothes are things that he gave to his students as souvenirs. Louis made an odd request of his friends; he asked that they burn a small box in his room without opening it. His friends could not keep from opening the box as Louis had asked, and the box was stuffed with IOUs, written in Braille, from students who had borrowed money from him. His friends burned the notes as Louis asked. When Louis Braille died on January sixth 1852, not a single Paris newspaper noted his passing.

In 1854, France adopted Braille as its official communications system for blind people

At the school, Louis' friends and former students evolved new ways of working with the code. Victor Ballu experimented with a phonetic shorthand system and collaborated with Levitte to create two-sided stereotyping as early as 1867. By 1880, Levitte had published a guide to the code using the same system for the position of the six dots that is still used today. By the late 1880s, Ballu devised a true inter-pointing scheme for two-sided printing pages.

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."

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Cite This Page (APA): Thomas C Weiss. (2009, June 24 - Last revised: 2023, June 16). Louis Braille: Historical Perspectives. Disabled World. Retrieved July 24, 2024 from www.disabled-world.com/disability/types/vision/louis-braille.php

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