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

Louis braille story

Video Louis braille story

Blind people read books written in Braille at a book club in Palma de Mallorca on November 7, 2012. … [+] AFP photo / Jaime Reina (Photo by Jaime reina/afp) (photo by jaime reina/afp via getty images)

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, gave access to millions blind people to 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 young children shouldn’t be allowed to play with sharp tools. the resulting infection took away the vision in her other eye shortly thereafter. Fortunately, Braille was a smart and resilient boy with supportive parents, unusual for the time. he went on to have an active childhood, navigating the streets of town and the paths around his family’s land using a cane his father made for him. and he quickly proved to be a brilliant student.

10-year-old Braille left her small hometown behind in 1819, bound for Paris. he had been accepted as a student at the Royal Institution for Young Blind Men (now the National Institution for Young Blind Men).

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

the system was better than nothing, but not by much. it meant that braille-blind students could learn to read, but not to write, at least not to themselves or other blind people. Printing the letters in relief required a full printing press, so it offered no way for students to take notes they could study later, or write letters that other blind people 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 usually shorter and simpler than normal print textbooks.

braille was irritated by the shortage of reading and study material. But everything changed in 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 the old regime returns to France

After his stints in the French royal army from 1784 to 1792 (he wisely left the country during the turbulent years of the French Revolution), Barbier had taken a keen interest in literacy. he wanted to make it easier for people, including the blind, to learn to read and write, and he thought the best solution was to offer them a simpler writing system.

barbier tried various options over the years, from shorthand to a phonetic alphabet. finally, he developed a system that arranged the 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 clunky, but it meant that a blind person could read the raised dots by touch and then make impressions on a sheet of paper, which another blind person could read in the same way.

An apocryphal version of the story, which appears to have been invented by a 19th-century biographer, claims that Barbier developed his system of raised dots so that soldiers on the front lines could covertly exchange notes under cover of darkness. It’s a compelling story, but not true, according to Barbier, who wrote in his autobiography that he had invented the system for the blind all along.

he brought his grids and dots to the royal institution in 1821, and one of the first students to learn it was then 12-year-old braille.

braille immediately realized the potential that the barbier system offered, but also saw room for improvement. He took the idea and essentially went with it, spending the next few years developing a simpler and more flexible version of Barbier’s dot raised alphabet. the writing system that thousands of people still use today, and millions more relied on before the advent of smartphones, began as a teenager’s school project.

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 in use today: neat arrangements of between 1 and 6 points to represent each letter. he even included annotations for music, as braille was an accomplished cellist and organist, as well as a star student and language developer.

hidden academics finally give up

Fewer people use braille today than a few decades ago, thanks to the availability of other technologies such as screen readers, speech-to-text software, and smartphones. however, until relatively recently, braille was the way blind people read and wrote in most parts of the world; was adopted in the usa in 1916. but braille never lived to see how its innovation changed the world.

haüy and his ideas dominated the royal institution for years after his death, and one of haüy’s staunchest beliefs was that blind students should be taught, as far as possible, the same as students seers. the large, raised letters were familiar to sighted people, and they almost equated that similarity with academic credibility. he didn’t fully trust braille or the new barbier dots.

That stubborn attitude continued after Haüy’s death in 1822. In fact, the first Braille edition of the book in 1829 was printed in Haüy’s raised lettering. and haüy’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 died.

the rest of the story

despite academic politics, the royal institution had become the home of braille and his life’s work. braille remained at the royal institution as a teaching assistant once he graduated, and in 1833 he became 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, most likely tuberculosis. he died in the infirmary of the royal institution two days after his 43rd birthday in 1852.

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