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Louis Braille - Historical Perspectives

  • Synopsis: Published: 2009-06-24 (Rev. 2016-03-26) - The history of Louis Braille who became blind at the age of three and wanted to read so invented Braille for the visually impaired. For further information pertaining to this article contact: Thomas C Weiss at Disabled World.

The Braille system is a method that is widely used by blind people to read and write, and was the first digital form of writing - Wikipedia

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Quote: "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 that were raised up off of the pages."

There was a time when people believed that persons who are blind or visually impaired would never learn to read, thinking that the only way that a person could read was through looking at words with their eyes.

A young French boy named Louis Braille believed otherwise. Louise became blind at the age of 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.

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 a number of sharp tools in order 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 consistent 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 as well. From 1814 through 1816 there was a constant stream of soldiers camping 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 has occurred. The people of the town became ill, and did not trust the government promoted vaccinations; to include Louis' father.

At about the same time a priest named Abbe Jacques Palluy and 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; something that was considered quite revolutionary at the time. Both of Louis' parents could read and write, and his older siblings had attended the same school as children. Louis did very well; in fact 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 director of the school - Sebastien Guillie. Louis' parents were not convinced, initially, that sending him to school in Paris was such a good idea. They were eventually persuaded, and Louis received a scholarship. In February of the year 1819 Louis, in the company of his father, made a four-hour stagecoach strip to Paris. Upon arrival, Louis became student Number 70, as well as the youngest student at the school. His number was attached to his bed, which had a straw mattress, as well as to his locker, and the badge that 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 he 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 that much, 'vegetating,' occurred during Guillie's tenure. Goods produced by the students were sold in Paris shops, creating a vital stream of revenue, as well as sheltered workshops. Guillie created harsh schedules and discipline in order to drive up productivity. Students at the school wove the very fabric for their own uniforms; depending upon their account these uniforms were either blue or black. Guillie also had students weave sheets for public hospitals in Paris; the largest of these hospitals had ten-thousands inmates. Students ate beans and porridge, had one bath a month, and scarce 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 which 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 apparently had a personal love of 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, to include 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 that were raised up off of the pages. Because the letters were so big, the books themselves were very large and bulky, and expensive; the school only had fourteen books. Louis read the fourteen books that were 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 of the sentence 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 a highly creative person.

He learned to play both 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, as well as a steady source of income for him. Louis had a great deal of confidence in his own 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 was capable of accomplishing, given the opportunity.

There came a day when chance walked through Louis' door.

Someone at his school had heard about an alphabet code that was being used by the French Army, a code which was being used in order 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 up off of the paper so that soldiers could read the message by running their fingers of 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 over-sized, raised letters. Yet the code the army was using 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 on the alphabet that the army was using 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. Prior to that they had very nearly conquered Europe, and were considered to be the best artillerymen in the entire world. Barbier had seen all the troops in a forward gun post annihilated when they betrayed their position through the lighting of 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 which enabled the writer to create messages in the dark. The students were reading with their usual painful slowness, Hauy's books of embossed print letters. 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 that 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 used a huge cell; more than a person's fingertip is able to cover. The cells stood for thirty-six basic sounds, instead of letters. A large, customized board which laid out six cells across and six cells down was used to write the sound symbols. The system lacked numbers, punctuation marks, and musical signs; there were horizontal dashes as well as 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 a lot of 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 a number of 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 a way to improve this alphabet. His parents always encouraged his musical pursuits, as well as his other school projects. Louis sat and thought about ways that he might improve the system of dots and dashes. He liked the idea of raised dots, but felt that 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 very 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 read it quickly 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 alphabet was enthusiastically received by his fellow students and Pignier. 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 to ever read Braille.

By 1829, Louis had published, 'Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of 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 professors at the school. All three of them used the new alphabet in their classes. That same year Louis Braille was drafted and represented at 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 while he was still in his mid-twenties. For many years his fellow students has 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. For the remainder of his life Louis experienced periods of health and energy mixed with hemorrhages and nearly fatal collapses. 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 at a later time due to the request of an English student who was the blind son of Sir George Hayter, portraitist to the British Royal Family. Louis also worked very hard on Braille music code. Gabriel Gauthier was both a composer and an organist, eventually producing his own works among the first volumes of Braille music.

Louis Braille's will, which was dictated to a notary less than a week prior to 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 mementos. Louis made an odd request of his friends; he asked that they burn a small box in his room without opening it. His friends were unable to keep from opening the box as Louis had asked, and the box was stuffed with IOU's, 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 of 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 worked in concert 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 in use to this day. By the late 1880's, Ballu devised a true inter-pointing scheme for printing two-sided 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."

Related Information:

  1. Braille Facts, Information and Example Pictures - Thomas C. Weiss - (2009-06-24)
  2. Electroactive Polymer Full Screen Displays for The Blind - NCSU - (2011-11-17)
  3. Full Screen Computer Braille Displays for the Blind - North Carolina State University - (2010-03-29)

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