Braille, Louis

Louis Braille was born in the small town of Coupvray, near Paris, France on 4 January 1809, and he became blind at the age of 3, when he accidentally stabbed himself in the eye with an awl belonging to his father who was a harness maker.  He became blind in the second eye due to what is known as ‘sympathetic ophtalmia’.

When Braille was ten, he entered a school (the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles) in Paris for blind male children. In those days blind people read by touching letters engraved in wood, cut in cardboard, or cast in lead. It was an awkward and tedious manner of reading, and no blind person could write with such a system. The school only had 14 books, and Braille had read every book. Attending this school he became very good at mathematics and science, and he also learnt to play the cello and organ. He was so talented an organist that he played at churches all over Paris. Music was really his first love. It also happened to be a solid means of income. Braille had great confidence in his own creative abilities.

During 1821 a French Army Captain, Charles Barbier, visited the school, and shared his invention called Night Writing – a code of 12 raised dots and a number of dashes, which enabled soldiers to share nighttime battlefield communications without having to speak.

The code was difficult for Louis to understand, but he soon mastered it, and he later changed the number of raised dots to 6 to form what we today call Braille.  In 1824, at the age of 15, he had thus developed his own system reading and writing. It was soon accepted by his fellow students. The Braille-system was not officially adopted until two years after his death. He published his system in 1829, and an extension to mathematical and musical notation was published in 1837.

Braille started teaching at the School for Blind Youth in Paris in 1826 but his Braille system was not taught at the Institute during his lifetime. With his system, Braille swept aside all the shortcomings of embossing. The raised- dot characters were simple and complete. The dots could read quickly with a touch of a finger. It took up little space compared to conventional printed letters. The Braille system, as it came to be known, made it possible to place all the worlds’ literature at the fingertips of blind people – Albanian to Zulu.

The first book in Braille was published in 1827 carrying the title “Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them”.

Braille’s system was exhibited at the World Exhibition in Germany in 1851, where it was well received. It was, however, not widely used until 1918, 56 years after his death. The universal Braille code for the English-speaking world was adopted in 1932 at a conference in London.

Braille had always been plagued by ill health and died of tuberculosis in Paris in 1852 at the age of 43.  His body was exhumed in 1952 (the centenary of his death) and honoured with reburial in the Pantheon, the home of France’s national heroes in Paris.