The Wild Story Of How A 12-Year-Old Invented Braille


Louis Braille, the inventor of the raised dot writing system used by blind people around the world, was born on January 4, 1809. Braille and the writing system that bears his name have enabled millions of blind people to access literacy – and gave the world access to the written works of blind writers.

The tack-maker’s son goes to Paris

At age 3, Braille lost an eye in a tragic example of why small children shouldn’t be allowed to play with sharp tools. The resulting infection took away the vision in his other eye soon after. Fortunately, Braille was a bright and resilient child with supportive parents, which is unusual for the time. He continued with an active childhood, walking the streets of the village and the trails around his family’s land using a cane his father made for him. And he quickly turned out to be a brilliant student.

Braille, 10, left his small hometown in 1819 for Paris. He had been accepted as a student at the Royal Institution for Blind Youth (now the National Institution for Blind Youth).

Its textbooks were printed on heavy paper with raised and raised letters that blind students could trace with their fingers – a system invented by the school’s founder, Valentin HaΓΌy.

The system was better than nothing, but not by much. This meant that students who were blind like braille could learn to read, but not to write – at least not for themselves or for other blind people. Printing the raised letters required a whole printing press, so there was no way for students to take notes that they could study later, or write letters that other blind people did. could read without the help of a sighted person. And because the special books were so expensive to make, the school only had a few at a time, and they were generally shorter and simpler than the normally printed textbooks.

Braille was annoyed at the lack of reading and study materials. But everything changed during his second year at the Royal Institution, when the brilliant young student met a former artillery officer named Charles Barbier de la Serre.

A soldier from Old regime Returns to France

After his stint in the French royal army from 1784 to 1792 (he wisely left the country during the turbulent years of the French Revolution), Barbier became very interested in literacy. He wanted to make learning to read and write easier for people – including the blind – and he believed that the best solution was to provide them with a simpler writing system.

Barbier has cobbled together several options over the years, ranging from shorthand to a phonetic alphabet. Eventually, he developed a system that organized letters in a grid. Each letter would be represented by two numbers, which in turn could be written as two rows of dots. By counting the dots, a person could read the numbers and then convert them to the correct letter. It was a bit awkward, but it meant that a blind person could read the raised dots by touch – then make impressions on a piece of paper, which another blind person could read similarly.

An apocryphal version of the story – which seems to have been invented by a 19th-century biographer – claims that Barbier developed his raised point system for soldiers on the front line to secretly exchange notes under cover of the darkness. It’s a fascinating story but not true, according to Barbier, who wrote in his autobiography that he always invented the system for the blind.

He brought his grids and points to the Royal Institution in 1821, and one of the first students to learn it was then 12-year-old Braille.

Braille immediately saw the potential offered by the Barbier system, but he also saw opportunities for improvement. He took the idea and followed it, essentially, and spent the following years developing a simpler, more flexible version of Barbier’s raised dot alphabet. The writing system that thousands of people still use today – and that millions of others relied on before the advent of smartphones – began as a school project for teenagers.

He finished in 1824, but had to wait until 1829 to publish the first edition of what is now known as Braille. But the version he published in 1837 is the one still used today: neat arrangements of 1 to 6 points to represent each letter. It even included notations for music, as Braille was an accomplished cellist and organist as well as a star student and language developer.

Hidden academics eventually give in

Fewer people use braille today than a few decades ago, thanks to the availability of other technologies, such as screen readers, text-to-speech software and smartphones. Until fairly recently, however, Braille was the way blind people in most countries of the world read and write; it was adopted in the United States in 1916. But Braille has never witnessed how its innovation changed the world.

HaΓΌy and his ideas ruled the Royal Institution for years after his death, and one of HaΓΌy’s most firmly held beliefs was that blind students should be taught, as much as possible, just like sighted students. Large raised letters were familiar to sighted people, and HaΓΌy equated this similarity with academic credibility. He didn’t fully trust Barbier’s braille and unpublished dots.

This hidden attitude survived after HaΓΌy’s death in 1822. In fact, the first edition of the Braille book from 1829 was printed in HaΓΌy’s raised letters. And HaΓΌy’s successors in the administration of the Royal Institution once fired a professor for translating a history book into Braille.

The Royal Institution finally adopted Braille in 1854 – two years after Braille’s death.

The rest of the story

Despite academic policy, the Royal Institution had become the home of Braille and his life’s work. Braille remained at the Royal Institution as a teaching assistant after he graduated, and in 1833 he became a full professor of algebra, geometry and history. He also served as organist in two large Parisian churches. Braille and Barbier exchanged letters until Barbier’s death in 1841.

Braille spent the last 16 years of his life battling a chronic respiratory disease, which was probably tuberculosis. He died in the Royal Institution infirmary two days after his 43e birthday in 1852.



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