Bust of Louis Braille
by Étienne Leroux (1836-1906),
Bibliothèque nationale de France
4 January 1809|
|Died||6 January 1852
|Resting place||Panthéon, Paris
Louis Braille ( pronunciation (help·info), //, French: [lwi bʁɑj]; 4 January 1809 – 6 January 1852) was the inventor of braille, a system of reading and writing used by people who are blind or visually impaired. As a small child, Braille was blinded in an accident; as a boy he developed a mastery over that blindness; and as a young man – still a student at school – he created a revolutionary form of communication that transcended blindness and transformed the lives of millions. After two centuries, the braille system remains an invaluable tool of learning and communication for the blind, and it has been adapted for languages worldwide.
Early life 
Braille was born in Coupvray, France, a small town located east of Paris. He and his three elder siblings – Monique Catherine Josephine Braille (b.1793), Louis-Simon Braille (b.1795), and Marie Céline Braille (b.1797) – lived with their mother, Monique, and father, Simon-René, on three hectares of land and vineyards in the countryside. Simon-René maintained a successful enterprise as a leatherer and maker of horse tack.
As soon as he could walk, Louis spent time playing in his father's workshop. At the age of three, the child was toying with some of the tools, trying to make holes in a piece of leather with an awl. Squinting closely at the surface, he pressed down hard to drive the point in, and the awl glanced across the tough leather and struck him in one of his eyes. A local physician bound and patched the affected eye and even arranged for Louis to be met the next day in Paris by a highly-respected surgeon, but no treatment could save the damaged organ. In agony, the young boy suffered for weeks as the wound became severely infected and spread to his other eye.a
Louis Braille survived the torment of the infection but by the age of five he was completely blind in both eyes. His devoted parents made great efforts – quite uncommon for the era – to raise their youngest child in a normal fashion, and Louis prospered in their care. He learned to navigate the village and country paths with canes his father hewed for him, and he grew up seemingly at peace with his disability. His bright and creative mind impressed the local teachers and priests, and he was encouraged to seek higher education.
Braille studied in Coupvray until the age of ten. Because of his combination of intelligence and diligence, Braille was permitted to attend one of the first schools for blind children in the world, the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, since renamed to the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris. At that time the school was an underfunded, ramshackle affair, but it provided a relatively stable environment for blind children to learn and associate together.
The Haüy system 
The children were taught how to read by a system devised by the school's founder, Valentin Haüy. Not blind himself, Haüy was a committed philanthropist who devoted his life to helping the blind. He designed and manufactured a small library of books for the children using a technique of embossing heavy paper with the raised imprints of Latin letters. Readers would trace their fingers over the text, comprehending slowly but in a traditional fashion which Haüy could appreciate.
Braille was helped by the Haüy books, but he also despaired over their lack of depth: the amount of information kept in such books was necessarily small. Because the raised letters were made in a complex artisanal process using wet paper pressed against copper wire, the children could not hope to "write" by themselves. So that the young Louis could send letters back home, Simon-René provided him with an alphabet fashioned from bits of thick leather. It was a slow and cumbersome process, but the boy could at least trace the letters' outlines and write his first sentences.
The handcrafted Haüy books all came in uncomfortable sizes and weights. They were laboriously constructed, exquisitely delicate, and greatly expensive to obtain: when Haüy's school first opened, it had a total of three books. Despite their drawbacks, Haüy promoted their use with zeal: the books presented a new and handsome system which could be readily comprehended by those with eyesight. Certainly no better method yet existed for the blind to read, and the books seemed – to the sighted – to offer the best achievable results. Braille and his schoolmates, however, could detect all too well the books' crushing limitations. Nonetheless, Haüy's well-intentioned efforts still provided a breakthrough achievement – the recognition of the sense of touch as a workable strategy for sightless reading. Haüy's only personal limitation was that he was "talking to the fingers [with] the language of the eye."
Teacher and musician 
Braille read the Haüy books repeatedly, and he was equally attentive to the oral instruction offered by the school. He proved to be a highly proficient student and, after he had exhausted the school's curriculum, he was immediately asked to remain as a teacher's aide. By 1833, he was elevated to a full professorship. For much of the rest of his life, Braille stayed at the Institute where he taught history, geometry, and algebra.
Braille's ear for music enabled him to become an accomplished cellist and organist in classes taught by Jean-Nicholas Marrigues. Later in life, his musical talents led him to play the organ for churches all over France. He held the position of organist in Paris at the Church of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs from 1834–1839, and later at the Church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul.
The braille system 
Braille was determined to fashion a system of reading and writing that could bridge the critical gap in communication between the sighted and the blind. In his own words: "Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we [the blind] are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about."
In 1821, Braille learned of a communication system devised by Captain Charles Barbier of the French Army. Some sources depict Braille learning about it from a newspaper account read to him by a friend, while others say the officer, aware of its potential, made a special visit to the school. In either case, Barbier willingly shared his invention called "night writing" which was a code of dots and dashes impressed into thick paper. These impressions could be interpreted entirely by the fingers, letting soldiers share information on the battlefield without having light or needing to speak. The captain's code turned out to be too complex to use in its original military form, but it inspired Braille to develop a system of his own.
Braille worked tirelessly on his ideas, and his system was largely completed by 1824, when he was just fifteen years of age. From Barbier's night writing, he innovated by simplifying its form and maximizing its efficiency. He made uniform columns for each letter, and he reduced the twelve raised dots to six. He published his system in 1829, and by the second edition in 1837 had discarded the dashes because they were too difficult to read. Crucially, Braille's smaller cells were capable of being recognized as letters with a single touch of a finger.
Braille created his own raised-dot system by using an awl, the same kind of implement which had blinded him. In the process of designing his system, he also designed an ergonomic interface for using it, based on Barbier's own slate and stylus tools: by soldering two thin bars across the slate, he created a secure area for the stylus which would keep the lines straight and readable.
Musical adaptation 
The system was later extended to include braille musical notation. Passionate about his own music, Braille took meticulous care in its planning to ensure that the musical code would be "flexible enough to meet the unique requirements of any instrument." In 1829, he published the first book about his system, Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them. Ironically this book was first printed by using the raised letter method of the Haüy system.
Braille produced several written works about braille and as general education for the blind. Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs... (1829) was revised and republished in 1837; his mathematics guide, Little Synopsis of Arithmetic for Beginners, entered use in 1838; and his monograph New Method for Representing by Dots the Form of Letters, Maps, Geometric Figures, Musical Symbols, etc., for Use by the Blind was first published in 1839. Many of Braille's original writings remain available at the Braille birthplace museum in Coupvray.
New Method for Representing by Dots... (1839) put forth Braille's plan for a new writing system with which blind people could write letters that could be read by sighted people. Called decapoint, the system combined his method of dot-punching with a new specialized grill which Braille devised to overlay the paper. When used with an associated number table (also designed by Braille and requiring memorization), the grill could permit a blind writer to faithfully reproduce the standard alphabet.
Later life 
After the introduction of decapoint, Braille gave assistance to his friend Pierre-François-Victor Foucault who was working on the development of a device that could emboss letters in the manner of a typewriter. Foucault's machine was hailed as a great success and was exhibited at the World's Fair in Paris in 1855.
Although Braille was admired and respected by his pupils, his writing system was not taught at the Institute during his lifetime. The successors of Valentin Haüy, who had died in 1822, showed no interest in altering the established methods of the school, and indeed, they were actively hostile to its use. Dr. Alexandre François-René Pignier, headmaster at the school, was dismissed from his post after he had a history book translated into braille.
Braille had always been a sickly child, and his condition worsened in adulthood. A persistent respiratory illness, long believed to be tuberculosis, dogged him, and by the age of forty, he was forced to relinquish his position as a teacher. When his condition reached mortal danger, he was taken back to his family home in Coupvray, where he died in 1852, two days after he had reached the age of forty-three.
Through the overwhelming insistence of the blind pupils, Braille's system was finally adopted by the Institute in 1854, two years after his death. The system spread throughout the French-speaking world, but was slower to expand in other places. In the Netherlands though, braille was already taught at the institute for the blind in Amsterdam at least as early as 1846. At the first conference in Europe of teachers of the blind in 1873, the cause of braille was championed by Dr. Thomas Rhodes Armitage and thereafter its international use increased rapidly. By 1882, Dr. Armitage was able to report that "There is now probably no institution in the civilized world where braille is not used except in some of those in North America." Eventually even these holdouts relented: braille was officially adopted by schools for the blind in the United States in 1916, and a universal braille code for English was formalized in 1932.
New variations in braille technology continue to grow, including such innovations as braille computer terminals; RoboBraille email delivery service; and Nemeth Braille, a comprehensive system for mathematical and scientific notation. Almost two centuries after its invention, braille remains a system of powerful and enduring utility.
Honors and tributes 
Braille's childhood home in Coupvray is a listed historic building and houses the Louis Braille Museum. A large monument to him was erected in the town square which was itself renamed Braille Square. On the centenary of his death in 1952 his remains were moved to the Panthéon in Paris. In a symbolic gesture, one of Braille's hands was left in Coupvray, reverently buried near his home.
The 200th anniversary of Braille's birth in 2009 was widely celebrated throughout the world by exhibitions and symposiums about his life and achievements. Among the commemorations, Belgium and Italy struck 2-euro coins, India struck a 2 rupee coin, and the USA struck a one dollar coin, all in Braille's honor.
Braille's tomb in the Panthéon, Paris.
In popular culture 
Because of his accomplishments as a young boy, Braille holds a special place as a hero for children, and he has been the subject of a large number of works of juvenile literature. Other appearances in the arts include the American TV special Young Heroes: Louis Braille (2010); the French TV movie Une lumière dans la nuit (2008); and the dramatic play Braille: The Early Life of Louis Braille (1989) by Lola and Coleman Jennings.
- ^ a: It remains uncertain which eye was actually struck first. Most accounts of Braille's accident omit reference to left or right. Braille's American biographer J. Alvin Kugelmass wrote that it was the left eye, but C. Michael Mellor and the 2013 Encyclopædia Brittanica state definitively that it was the right.
- Mellor, p. 14.
- Weygand, p. 282.
- Kugelmass (1951), pp. 13–23.
- Marsan, Colette (2009). "Louis Braille: A Brief Overview". Association Valentin Haüy. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
- Kugelmass (1951), pp. 24–39.
- The World Book Student Discovery Encyclopedia, Vol. B2. Chicago: World Book Inc. 2000. p. 117. ISBN 0-7166-7400-9.
- Farrell, p. 98.
- "Fact Sheet: Louis Braille". Vision Australia. 2009. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
- Kugelmass (1951), pp. 34–35.
- Kugelmass (1951), pp. 37–38.
- Kugelmass (1951), p. 48.
- Farrell, p. 96.
- Olmstrom, pp. 161–162.
- "Église Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs" (in French and English). Universite du Quebec. 2011. Retrieved 8 November 2011.
- Mellor, p. 78.
- Kugelmass (1951), pp. 108–115.
- "Who was Louis Braille?". Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). 2010. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
- Kugelmass (1951), pp. 117–118.
- Farrell, pp. 96–97.
- Mellor, p. 82.
- Farrell, p. 99.
- "Louis Braille 1809-1852 : un génie français" (in French). Valentin Haüy Association. 2011. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
- "Books in Braille". Afb.org. American Foundation for the Blind. 2013. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
- Braille, Louis (1839). "Nouveau procede pour representer des points la forme meme des letters, les cartes de geographie, les figures de geometrie, les caracteres de musiques, etc., a l'usage des aveugles" (in French). Institution royale des jeunes aveugles.
- "Maison Natale de Louis Braille". Culturecommunication.gouv.fr. Culture-Acte 2. 2013. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
- "Louis Invents Decapoint". Afb.org. American Foundation for the Blind. 2013. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
- Weygand, p. 288.
- Farrell, p. 121.
- Wace, Barbara; John Peaty. Louis Braille. p. 128. in Clifford Makins, ed. (1961). Girl Annual No. 9. Longacre Press.
- Lorimer, pp. 26ff.
- van der Vijver, Cornelis (1846). Geschiedkundige beschrijving der stad Amsterdam. Gebroeders Diederichs. p. 76. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
- Farrell, pp. 103–104.
- Reynolds, p. 318.
- Braille Authority of North America (2011). "The Evolution of Braille" (PDF). Braillauthority.org. Retrieved 5 December 2011.
- "Louis Braille Monument". Louis Braille School, Edmonds, WA. 1996. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
- Farrell, p. 97.
- Kugelmass, J. Alvin (24 February 1952). "That Those Who Are Blind May Read". The New York Times. p. BR26. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
- "New 2-euro commemorative coin on display in the Museum". National Bank of Belgium. 2009. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
- "Italy 2 euro commemorative coin 2009 Louis Braille". Brailleroom. 2009. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
- "Commemorative Coins – India – Louis Braille". India Stamp Ghar. 2010. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
- "2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar". United States Mint. 2009. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
- See Worldcat.org for a complete list of Braille-related literature for children and young adults.
- "Young Heroes: Louis Braille". Deaftvchannel.com. 2011. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
- "Une lumière dans la nuit (TV 2008)". IMDb.com. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
- Jennings, Lola H.; Jennings, Coleman A. (1989). Braille: the early life of Louis Braille. Dramatic Publishing. ISBN 978-1-58342-426-1. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
- Farrell, Gabriel (1956). The Story of Blindness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. OCLC 263655.
- Kugelmass, J. Alvin (1951). Louis Braille: Windows for the Blind. New York: Julian Messner Inc. OCLC 8989771.
- Lorimer, Pamela (1996). A critical evaluation of the historical development of the tactile modes of reading and analysis and evaluation of researches carried out in endeavours to make the braille code easier to read and to write (Ph. D. thesis). University of Birmingham. OCLC 49619181. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
- Olstrom, Clifford E. Undaunted By Blindness. Watertown, MA: Perkins School for the Blind. ISBN 978-0-9822721-9-0. Retrieved 4 December 2011.
- Reynolds, Cecil R.; Fletcher-Janzen, Elaine (2007). Encyclopedia of Special Education: A-D. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 978-0-471-67798-7.
- Mellor, C. Michael (2006). Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius. Boston: National Braille Press. ISBN 0-939173-70-0.
- Weygand, Zina (2009). The Blind in French Society: From the Middle Ages to the century of Louis Braille. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0-8047-5768-3.
Further reading 
- La vie et l'oeuvre de Louis Braille: Inventeur de l'alphabet des aveugles (1809–1852) by Pierre Henri. Paris: Pr. universit. de France (1952). (French)
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- Valentin Haüy Association (English)
- Louis Braille Online Museum - American Foundation for the Blind (AFB)
- An original page from New Method for Representing by Dots..., 1837 edition, at the AFB.
- Original pages from Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plainsong..., 1829 edition, at the National Federation of the Blind