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Six Dots

Louis Braille

How a tenacious boy created one of the most life-changing inventions in human history

Louis Braille was born near Paris, France on January 4th, 1809. At the age of three, he lost sight in his left eye due to an accident in his father’s workshop. A year later, an infection took his vision in his right eye as well.Six dots. Six bumps. Six bumps in different patterns, like constellations, spreading out over the page. What are they? Numbers, letters, words. Who made this code? None other than Louis Braille, a French 12-year-old, who was also blind. And his work changed the world of reading and writing, forever.

Braille would later attend the Royal Institute for Blind Children in Paris. There, he learned of a system used in the military known as “night writing” which allowed soldiers to communicate without light or speech. This system utilised 12 raised dots used to represent different sounds,

Intrigued, the young Braille adapted this system and created the modern Braille system as we know it today. The system has been adapted to most languages and it is still the most popular way for the blind to read.

“Communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness,” Virginia Woolf wrote in contemplating the elemental human need for communication. Indeed, a life deprived of that essential sustenance of the soul, whatever form it may take, is a life of unthinkable tragedy.

In the first few weeks of 1809, three baby boys were born who changed the course of history: Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States; Charles Darwin, British father of the theory of evolution; and Louis Braille, the French inventor of a means of literacy for blind people worldwide. Unlike Lincoln and Darwin, Braille’s genius is little known outside his native land, except among those who have been touched by his gift of literacy.

No cultural hero has delivered more people of that tragedy than Louis Braille (January 4, 1809–January 6, 1852).

Photograph of Louis Braille’s home in Coupvray. A dirt road separates Louis’ very simple stone house on the left from another house (possibly also belonging to the Braille family) on the right-hand side. A marble plaque indicating that the house was occupied by Louis is on the side of the building facing the viewer and a wooden harness maker building sign is visible on the other side of the building. A cat sits on the road. No date.

Louis Braille was born in the little town of Coupvray, 25 miles east of Paris, on January 4, 1809. He was the last child of Simon-René Braille and his wife of 17 years, Monique (née Baron). They already had three children: Monique-Catherine-Joséphine, born 1793; Louis-Simon, born 1795; and Marie-Céline, born 1797. Louis was the youngest by twelve years.

Louis was a small, listless baby, too sickly even to suck milk from his mother’s breast. He was registered with the town authorities the next day and baptised three days later for fear he might die. Disease struck hard in early 19th-century France, and infant mortality was high, even for the wealthy.

Still, under the devoted care of his mother and family, Louis grew more robust. Mother and father were thrilled with their new baby, who came along, perhaps unexpectedly, when Simon-René was 44 and Monique 39. Simon-René proudly announced that Louis would be his “companion in old age.” The doting parents called him their little “Benjamin”—a reference to the beloved son of the biblical Jacob—and he became their favourite.

Simon-René supported his family as a harness maker (bourrelier), a trade first practised by his own father some sixty years earlier. In an agrarian society, a bourrelier was a man of some stature, well known to the farming community and frequently visited by neighbouring farmers over the course of a year. He made the leather tack – collars, straps, bridles – that allowed a farmer to tap and control the strength of a horse, the chief source of power on a farm and one of the few means of transport until well into the 19th century.

Simon-René was adept at his trade, earning the title of master harness maker before he was 27. “It was a point of honour with the master to deliver only work well done, to strive for perfection in the whole and in every detail.” Young Louis was to draw on these traits—attention to detail and a desire for perfection—to invent a means of literacy for people around the world.

Life for Monique Braille, a wife and mother in rural France at the turn of the 19th century, was arduous. Lacking today’s labor-saving amenities, Monique spent most of her waking hours taking care of the children, preparing food, cleaning, sewing, spinning, washing and mending clothes, and helping on the farm. There were chickens and a cow to attend to, and in the fall, she and the children helped to make hay as winter fodder.

Monique and Simon-René always encouraged young Louis to join in the work. Over the years, the industrious and frugal Braille family acquired an additional seven and a half acres of land and managed their own two and a half acre vineyard, which yielded a year’s supply of wine, stored in huge casks in the cellar.

At the age of three, Louis Braille suffered an accident that deprived him of his sight.

Trying to imitate his father, he set out to puncture a piece of leather. But the awl slipped from his tiny hand and stabbed him in the eye.

How young Louis Braille injured his eye in his father’s workshop one summer day in 1812 is not clear. The most reliable account comes from Hippolyte Coltat, a former schoolmate and close friend of Louis’s:

One day, at the age of three, sitting beside his father, who was working and lovingly thinking about his little “Benjamin” [i.e., Louis], the boy wanted to work too, and imitate the movements he saw his father make. In one of his little hands, he seized a leather strap, and in the other a serpette (a slender, curved knife, rather like a small pruning hook) and there he was at work. Weakness often invites trouble, and it did: The sharp tool veered out of control at an angle and stabbed the poor worker in the eye.

Medical knowledge at that time could not save the eyesight of their “Benjamin.” Lily water, thought to possess healing powers, was applied by an old woman from the village, probably doing more harm than good to the injured right eye. Louis’s other (left) eye became inflamed, and the sight in that eye was eventually lost, too. The right cornea became totally opaque, and the left eye partially so, with blue “striations.” His eyes would have been very painful during this period; he would have cried a lot and needed much mothering.

This was the dawn of the nineteenth century, and medicine as we know it was yet to be born, so although a local healer bandaged the boy’s eye and a Parisian surgeon attempted to save it the next day, the damage was permanent. An infection took root and soon spread to his other eye, leaving little Louis in ongoing agony. By the age of five, he had lost his vision completely.

Because Louis was so young when he became blind, his development of theory of mind had not yet reached the point where children become aware that their internal experience is not the universal state of the world. At first, he thought that the world had sunk into a permanent night — he kept asking his parents where the sun had gone.

Eventually, he realised that it was his own sight that had disappeared and began learning to navigate the world with the senses he had left. His father made him a cane, his brother taught him echolocation, his two sisters made him a straw alphabet, the village priest taught him to recognise trees by their touch and birds by their song, and his mother taught him to play dominoes by counting the dots with his fingertips.

MODERN COMMEMORATIVES 2009 P LOUIS BRAILLE S$1 MS

In spite of his physical deficiency, Braille attended the school in his hometown for two years, and although he proved to be one of the most outstanding students, his family believed that the boy could never learn to read and write, nor access through Education to a promising future.

The adults in his life read books to him and he went to school with all the other children, where he excelled despite his blindness. But whenever Louis asked whether there were any books for blind children, he was met with a lamenting “no.”

A local noblewoman was so touched by his story that she wrote a letter to the Royal Institute for the Blind in Paris, beseeching them to accept him. One day, a letter arrived announcing his admission.

So when he was ten years old, he entered the school for blind boys in Paris, one of the first institutions specialised in this field to be inaugurated around the world. The conditions of the centre were very harsh; A severe discipline was imposed upon the students, which, however, did not intimidate the strong character of the young Braille. In the centre, pupils learned some simple trades and received most of their instruction orally.

They also attended reading classes because the school’s founder, Valentin Haüy, had succeeded in developing a book printing system with embossed characters to enable tactile reading. The method was very rudimentary: it required an individualised impression in copper for each letter, and although the students could touch them and identify them with their fingertips, they were not able to reproduce them by themselves through writing.

Birthplace of Louis Braille in Coupvray. In the French town of Coupvray, near Paris, there stands a little stone house that, in 1809, was the home of the local harness maker, Simon-René Braille, his wife Monique, and their growing family.

On a Sunday afternoon in September of 1771, Valentin Haüy, a well-dressed, respectable middle-class man of about twenty-five, strolled along the busy streets of Paris. He entered a popular eating establishment and took a table close to the stage to enjoy the afternoon’s entertainment. The performance that day changed his life.

Ten blind people dressed in ridiculous gowns and dunce hats, with oversized cardboard glasses fastened to their faces, formed a make-believe orchestra. They scraped away on musical instruments that they did not know how to play–violins, cellos, basses–while the crowd made fun of them and shouted rude comments. Valentin Haüy felt a deep compassion for those people whose eyes could not see, and he could not forget them.

Several years later, Valentin Haüy gave a few coins to a young blind boy begging near a church in Paris. The boy was thin, cold, and dressed in rags; his name was François Leseuer. Mr Haüy observed the way François felt the raised markings on the coins and had an idea. Why couldn’t books be written with the letters raised as they are on coins? Then people who could not see with their eyes could read with their fingers.

Mr Haüy took François off the street. He gave him food, shelter, and as much money as he would have received begging. Using wooden blocks with letters and numbers carved on them, he slowly taught François to read.

From that time on, Valentin Haüy dedicated his life and his resources to the education of blind children. He developed a way to print books with raised letters that could be read with the fingers. Toward the end of 1784, he opened the world’s first school for blind children in Paris. The children lived, studied, and worked at the school. One of the first teachers was François Leseuer. The school attracted the attention of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the king and queen of France. They invited Mr Haüy to bring some of his blind students to the palace at Versailles on December 26, 1786, to demonstrate their reading ability. The king and queen were impressed with the children’s accomplishment, and the school became known as the Institution Royale des Juenes Aveugles (Royal Institute for Blind Youth).

During the French Revolution, the Royal Institute for Blind Youth was taken over by the State. Valentin Haüy was forced to give up his position as director of the Institute. He left France and travelled to Russia. While there, he accepted an invitation from Czar Alexander I to establish Russia’s first school for the blind at St. Petersburg.

Mr Haüy’s work became known throughout Europe. During his lifetime, schools for blind children were organised in England, Austria, Germany, Holland, Russia, Switzerland, and Denmark.

Valentin Haüy did not return to Paris until 1817.

Louis Braille

Long before Louis Braille’s time, attempts had been made to create embossed letters or shapes on wood or paper to enable the blind to read by touch. After the Napoleonic Wars, a French artillery officer named Charles Barbier invented ‘night writing’, which used raised dots on cardboard to send written messages on battlefields by night.

At the institute in the rue St-Victor, where the boys and girls were kept strictly segregated, crossed twigs did duty for letters of the alphabet. The food was sparse and the children were underfed, but the nourishing curriculum included Greek and Latin, algebra, geography and music. The school boasted a small orchestra and Louis became a good cello player and organist.

Captain Charles Barbier, meanwhile, was earnestly attempting to interest the French army authorities in his écriture nocturne, in which they steadfastly declined to see any military merit. In the 1820s it occurred to him that it could be used by the blind. He took it to the school in the rue St-Victor, where Louis Braille was one of the pupils enlisted to evaluate it.

In 1821, the army officer Charles Barbier de la Serre visited the school to introduce a new tactile reading and writing system that could be introduced into the school’s educational program. Barbier had invented a basic technique so that the soldiers could exchange messages in the trenches during the night without speaking, thus preventing the enemy from discovering their position. His invention of nocturnal writing, baptised with the name of Sonography, consisted in placing on a flat rectangular surface twelve points in relief that, when combined, represented different sounds.

This code was used to deliver messages at night from officers to soldiers. The messages could not be written on paper because the soldier would have to strike a match to read it.

The light from the match would give the enemy a target at which to shoot. The alphabet code was made up of small dots and dashes. These symbols were raised up off the paper so that soldiers could read them by running their fingers over them. Once the soldiers understood the code, everything worked fine.

The students found it interesting, but too rudimentary to be of much value to them.

Louis got hold of some of this code and tried it out. It was much better than reading the gigantic books with gigantic raised letters. But the army code was still slow and cumbersome. The dashes took up a lot of space on a page. Each page could only hold one or two sentences. Louis knew that he could improve this alphabet in some way. Between the ages of 13 and 16, Louis worked on perfecting an embossed dot system. Like Barbier’s, Louis’ system used raised dots, but beyond that similarity, Louis’ ideas were his own. For three years Louis spent his free time refining his code. On the weekends, evenings, and summer vacations in Coupvray, Louis could be found with paper, slate, and stylus diligently working.

The young Louis Braille had made considerable progress in his studies and developed a considerable talent for music, immediately perceived that the possibilities of Sonography for the education of the blind were to simplify the system provided by Barbier. In the following months, he experimented with different possibilities and combinations until he found an ideal solution to reproduce the basic phonetics that only required the use of six points in relief.

The Braille Alphabet with dot cells representing the letters A-Z, accented letters, common letter patterns and grammar from “The Braille Reference Book” by M. S. Loomis, 1942.

On his next vacation home, he would spend all his time working on finding a way to make this improvement. When he arrived home for school vacation, he was greeted warmly by his parents. His mother and father always encouraged him on his music and other school projects. Louis sat down to think about how he could improve the system of dots and dashes. He liked the idea of the raised dots but could do without the raised dashes.

As he sat there in his father’s leather shop, he picked up one of his father’s blunt awls. The idea came to him in a flash. The very tool which had caused him to go blind could be used to make a raised dot alphabet that would enable him to read.

The next few days he spent working on an alphabet made up entirely of six dots. The position of the different dots would represent the different letters of the alphabet.

After laborious trial and error, he simplified Barbier’s method, using six dots in varying patterns in domino-like ‘cells’, which provided a total of sixty-three permutations for different letters and numbers, and later musical notes. The sixty-fourth permutation, with no dots at all, was the space symbol.

Louis used the blunt awl to punch out a sentence. He read it quickly from left to right. Everything made sense. It worked…

When at age 15 he felt he had an adequate code, he shared it with Dr Pignier, who had become his mentor. Louis’ system, based on a six-dot cell, was both simple and elegant. A full braille cell consists of six raised dots arranged in two parallel rows, each having three dots. Sixty-four combinations are possible using one or more of these six dots. A single cell can be used to represent an alphabet letter, number, punctuation mark, or even a whole word.

Dr Pignier encouraged the students at the Institute to use Louis’ code. With it, they were able to achieve a level of literacy previously unavailable to them.

(After his groundbreaking invention, he continued to work tirelessly, developing implementations of braille in mathematics and music, co-creating a precursor of the dot-matrix printing machine, and mastering the cello and the organ, which he played professionally at Parisian churches even as tuberculosis slowly syphoned away his vitality.

Miniature portrait on ivory by Lucienne Filippi. This image of Louis Braille was derived from a daguerreotype, taken shortly after his death. This is the visage of a dead man; in life, he kept his eyes open.”Louis was of medium height, slender, quite streamlined, and elegantly muscular. His head leant forward, his blond hair curled naturally, his movements were free and easy.”

Despite the undoubted advantages it offered for the educational development of blind children, the method invented by the young French was not implanted immediately. There was reluctance among teachers about the utility of the system, and a school teacher even banned the children from learning. Fortunately, the veto had an encouraging effect on the students, who, on the sly, strove to study the point compositions devised by their classmate Louis and discovered that not only were they able to read texts but also to write them themselves with a simple method Manufacturing of relief points.

The other pupils at the school took to Braille’s method. Its simplicity made it easy to learn, but the school did not endorse it, principally because money was short and the cost of introducing it prohibitive.

For the first time, blind people enjoyed an autonomy that until then had been forbidden to them.

When Louis was 19, Dr Pignier hired him to be an apprentice teacher at the Institute at a salary of 180 francs per year. Louis taught several classes including algebra, grammar, and geometry, to both sighted and blind students. With the appointment of apprentice teacher, Louis moved out of a dormitory and was provided with his own room.

In 1829 the Institute published Louis’ book, Method of Writing Words, Music and Plain Songs by Means of Dots for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them. In it, Louis explained how his code worked to produce letters, words, punctuation, capitalization, musical notes, and arithmetic symbols. The book was prepared using embossed type, but examples were provided in Louis’ six-dot code.

In spite of poor health, Louis continued to make changes to his code, and in 1837 he produced the second edition of Method of Writing Words, Music and Plain Songs by Means of Dots for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them, followed in 1838 by Little Synopsis of Arithmetic for Beginners. In this book, he not only describes how to make materials for mathematics, but he also provides ideas on how to write a textbook using his code. He recognised the need for uniformity in the production of textbooks and other material for readers who were blind.

In 1837, the Institute for Blind Youth produced the first full-length book published in braille, A Brief History of France. A copy of the book, one of only three extant copies, is preserved in the Rare Book Collection of the American Foundation for the Blind

In 1833 at the age of 24, Louis and two other blind friends including his best friend Gabriel Gauthier, were made full-fledged teachers. For his work, Louis received a salary of 300 francs per year. After 1835, Louis only provided instruction to blind students. With his salary, he was able to buy himself a piano, lend money to friends who were in need, and pay people to help write books using his code. In 1834, the Exposition of Industry was held in Paris, and Louis was permitted to exhibit his code and demonstrated it to attendees.

On May 7, 1840, Dr Pignier was forced to retire from the position of director of the Institute and was succeeded by his former assistant, Pierre-Armand Dufau. Dufau did not approve of Louis Braille’s code and banned its use by students and teachers at the Institute. It is said he did not like Louis’ code because he was afraid that there would be no need for sighted teachers if everyone who was blind could read as a result of using Braille.

Louis was forced by ill-health to convalesce for six months in Coupvray. When he returned to Paris he discovered that Dufau had burned 73 books produced by Guillié and Pignier using Haüy’s embossing method. The director thought a different embossing system, in use in the United States and Scotland, was superior to Haüy’s system. The method was called Boston Line Type, and eventually, it was found to be less effective than Louis Braille’s code.

Dufau’s aversion to Braille’s code and his prohibition on its use at the Institute were countered by Joseph Guadet, his assistant, who supported the braille code. Guadet convinced Dufau to see the benefits of using Louis’ code. On February 22, 1844, the Institute celebrated its move to a new building. During the dedication ceremony, Guadet demonstrated Louis Braille’s code. First, a 15-page book entitled Account of the System of Writing in Raised Dots Used for the Blind was read to those in attendance. This text acknowledged Louis’ accomplishments and outlined the steps in the development of his code. Next, a child was sent out of the room. Another child was asked to use Louis’ code to write poetry dictated by a visitor attending the celebration. The first child was asked to come back in the room and read the poetry from the page the second child had created.

The day of the demonstration is often said to be the day Louis Braille’s code, the braille code, was accepted by the world. In 1850, Dufau acknowledged Braille’s invention in the second edition of his book, Concerning the Blind, which had made no mention of Braille’s contribution in the original 1837 version.

Braille’s book made no impression on the wider world and Braille began to show the first symptoms of tuberculosis that would kill him. He produced an improved version of his system in 1837 and Pierre Foucault, another blind ex-pupil of the school, invented what was in effect the first typewriter for the blind in 1841. But Braille did not live long enough to see the triumph of his system. He died at the school in Paris two days after his forty-third birthday. His brother hired a horse and cart to drive the body back to Coupvray.

El Monumento a Louis Braille

In the years that followed, the practicality, as well as simple elegance of his braille system, was increasingly recognised, and today, in virtually every language throughout the world, it is the standard form of writing and reading used by blind persons. If a blind child is taught braille skills with the same sense of importance that is rightly attached to the teaching of print skills to sighted children, he or she will grow up able to read at speeds comparable to print readers, a life skill of inestimable value. Over 210 years after Louis Braille worked out his basic 6-dot system, its specific benefits remain unmatched by any later technology–though some, computers being a prime example, both complement and contribute to braille.

In 1860, the Braille system was introduced to the school for the blind of St. Louis (United States). In 1868, a group of four blind men, led by Dr Thomas Armitage, founded a society in the United Kingdom to promote the perfection and diffusion of embossed literature for the blind. This small group of friends grew to become the National Institute of the Blind, the largest publisher of Braille texts in Europe and the largest British organisation for visually impaired people. In the twentieth century, the Braille method had been implemented in almost every country in the world.

Louis Braille’s great contribution to education and the quality of life of the blind population was finally recognised in his country: in 1952, when the centenary of his death was over, his body was transferred to the Parisian Pantheon where the remains of the National heroes. That same year, the Friends of Louis Braille Association bought the house of Coupvray where the educator was born in 1809, and shortly afterwards the World Council for the Social Promotion of the Blind was commissioned by the Louis Braille Committee. In 1966, the French state inscribed the native house in the inventory of historical monuments. In 1984, when the Council merged with the International Federation of the Blind and the current World Union of the Blind emerged, the birthplace and the Braille Committee became part of the Union.

Bust and awl exhibit at the Braille birthplace museum in Coupvray.

Helen Keller rightfully compared Braille to Gutenberg, for no other invention since the printing press had transformed the lives of more people who would’ve otherwise lived bereft of the joy and liberation of reading and learning, their basic human need for communication unmet. But although Braille belongs alongside inventors like Tesla and Edison in impact and legacy, one crucial element sets him apart from and perhaps even above them:

He was only a child when he developed his revolutionary invention — which means he had no training, no funding, no public or institutional support, no commercial motive or business plan, and only the vision for something life-changing and redemptive born out of the necessity of a disability that had forever changed his own short life.

Louis Braille
” …to open the eyes of the blind.”
Isaiah 42:7

On June 20th, 1952, Louis Braille’s remains were disinterred at Coupvray and taken to Paris to be deposited with honour in the Panthéon. The bones of Braille’s hands, however, were separated and kept in a concrete box on top of his empty tomb at Coupvray. The ceremony in Paris was attended by the President of the Republic, Vincent Auriol, and by blind people and delegations from more than twenty countries. In 1841 Braille had told Foucault that access to communication was vitally important for blind people, ‘if we are not to go on being despised or patronised by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded that we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way we can bring this about.’

Louis Braille Biography A Touch of Genius

Louis Braille and the Braille System

Louis Braille School FAQ

See Louis Braille at the Pantheon!

Louis Braille Biography – Braille Bug – American Foundation for the Blind

NBP Learn About Braille: Who is Louis Braille

Louis Braille Biography | Louis Braille School Online Resource …

Louis Braille, Creator of the Braille Alphabet – Braillerman

Louis Braille – Educator, Inventor – Biography.com

The Story of Louis Braille | Paths to Literacy

History of Louis Braille and the Braille Story – Access-USA

Duxbury Systems — Louis Braille and the Braille System

Death of Louis Braille | History Today

Louis Braille: The Father of Literacy for the Blind

Invention of braille – RNIB – Supporting people with sight loss

Louis Braille | ASCRS

History of Braille – Braille Works


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