Louis Braille and his uniquely tactile alphabet for the blind

Posted in Historical articles, History, Language on Monday, 23 April 2012

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about Louis Braille originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 694 published on 3 May 1975.

Louis Braille and alphabet, picture, image, illustration

Louis Braille and his alphabet by Harry Green

Blind people have a world of knowledge available to them thanks to the work of a fifteen-year-old boy. This was the age at which Louis Braille perfected a system of raised dots which blind people read by feeling them with their fingers. Everything from a text book to a knitting pattern or from a novel to the Radio Times is available in Braille for the sightless person to enjoy.

It all began in Coupvray, a little French village to the east of Paris, a village so small that it does not even appear on most maps of the area. But it is there that Louis Braille was born in 1809, to the wife of the village saddler and harness-maker. He was the youngest son of the family, and no doubt his parents were so busy with the shop, the house, and the garden that Louis was often left to amuse himself.

One place that fascinated him was his father’s workshop. There he saw the heavy saddles and the brass-studded harness being cut, stitched, and assembled, for the local farmers and landowners. There were no tractors or cars in those days. The making of a harness, like the shoeing of horses, was a full-time job for at least one craftsman in even the smallest village. So Louis Braille’s father was always busy, and the little boy no doubt watched in growing wonder at the things his father could make with sharp tools, fine leather, and lengths of waxed thread.

From the start, however, Louis’ father used to give him a stern warning,

“Never touch my tools, will you, my son.” The boy would look disappointed, as much as to say, “It looks so easy; why can’t I have a try?”

But always the same warning came from his father. “Don’t touch anything in my workshop; these tools are sharp and might hurt you. When you grow up, then I’ll show you how to use them.”
Like so many boys, Louis did not quite believe what he had been told. Or at least, he thought he knew better. One day he crept alone into his father’s workshop, and thought he would have a try. The tool he liked best was one that had a sharp point. With one blow on it from a little wooden mallet, his father could punch right through a strip of leather and make a neat line of holes through which leather belts could be tightened. Having found a strip of leather for himself, Louis decided that he would have a try.

The first blow was no use. He missed the tool altogether. The second was a better attempt; he hit the tool, but not hard enough, and it only made a dent in the leather. He hit it again, and then dropping the tools, ran screaming from the workshop with his hands clasped to his eye. The pointed tool had slipped, flown into his face, and pierced one of his eyes!

His parents quickly realised what had happened, and rushed him to the local doctor for such help as could be given in those days. The injured eye was damaged beyond recovery; soon it became known that the other eye was infected as a result of the injury to the first. Within a few weeks the boy was totally and permanently blind!

No doubt the parents blamed themselves for their lack of attention no less than they blamed Louis for his disobedience. But the damage was done; nothing could bring back his lost sight, and life seemed to hold very little for a blind boy in those days.

As he grew, Louis found some pleasure in music, and was soon able to pick out tunes on the family piano, or on the organ of the village church. These he had to play by ear and from memory, of course, while feeling his way about the keyboard.

When Louis was ten, his parents sent him to a special school for blind children in Paris, where blind boys were taught various crafts such as weaving and basket-making, by which they could earn their living. They were also taught to sing, and Louis was able to continue his musical studies, so that he became a very competent organist.

But what he so greatly missed was the opportunity to read. At the school there were about a dozen books printed with raised letters, which a blind person could learn to read slowly by tracing the shapes of the letters with his fingers.

But these books were of little use, being difficult and expensive to make, and clumsy to read. But though still only a boy, Louis Braille was already beginning to think carefully of how a better system could be produced by which a blind person could read by using his finger-tips.

His real inspiration came from the work of an army officer named Charles Barbier. This officer had devised a system by which he could send messages embossed in a code of dots and dashes on thin cardboard. Their value was that they could be read at night, in the dark, by a person feeling them with his finger-tips. They could be passed around and read in complete silence, so that orders could be given silently, under the very nose of the enemy if necessary.

This very successful system came to the knowledge of Louis Braille, and set him experimenting further. Though only fifteen years old, Louis reduced Barbier’s system of twelve dots and dashes to a simpler pattern, in which all the letters of the alphabet could be written by using various patterns of from one to six dots.

These patterns could be quickly recognised by a reasonably sensitive finger. Before he was twenty, Louis Braille had published his system of printing for the blind, and a simple machine was designed by which sheets of this “Braille” type (as it was quickly called) could be punched out quickly and cheaply.

The same system was applied to musical notes, which a performer could read, and learn by heart in order to play. Although he later revised and improved his system, it remained, and still remains today, essentially the one devised by the blind schoolboy of fifteen, a century and a half ago.

In addition to becoming world famous for his invention of this way of writing for the blind (which can be used for many other languages, besides French), Louis Braille became a talented organist, and performed on most of the famous organs in the great churches of Paris. His countrymen honoured his memory when, in 1952, a century after his early death at the age of 43, they took his body from the little churchyard at Coupvray, his birthplace, and placed it among the heroes of France in the splendid building known as the Pantheon, in the heart of Paris. But his most lasting memorial is not so much there as in the name which he gave to the system which has brought happiness to the blind of succeeding generations, by putting knowledge – quite literally – at their finger-tips!

Comments are closed.