Braille History

 

Published by Enabling Technologies

 

Braille is our only business, and today, our computer-driven embossers produce millions of pages of it in countries all over the world. But the history of Braille is rooted deep in times long past.

 

How Braille Began, Between Crusades:

 

The improbable chain of circumstance that would give birth to Braille began during the Crusades with King Louis the Ninth of France. Already a religious man, Louis returned to Paris after a crushing defeat in the Crusades, certain that God was making him suffer to teach him humility. This belief intensified his interest in charity. Among other good works, he founded the first institution for the blind in the world, the “Quinze-Vingts” hospice (in English, “fifteen score” or 300).

The name was later claimed to refer to the first inhabitants, said to be 300 knights punitively blinded by the Saracens during the Crusades. This dramatic tale of the hospice’s origins is not true, but the horrifying nature of the story has kept it alive for 500 years. Since the tale began in a fund-raising letter for the Quinze-Vingts in 1483, it may mark another first—institutional fund-raising as modern people would recognize it.

The Quinze-Vingts did provide a unique shelter and community for blind Parisians. The largely self-governing hospice officially licensed its blind inhabitants as beggars in uniform, apparently as a kind of accreditation council in a world that feared being “cheated” by able-bodied frauds. The inhabitants (who never reached 300 in number at any one time) led lives that were somewhat more regulated but probably somewhat more secure than those of many of their contemporaries. Residents kept some of the proceeds of begging, but had to leave a portion of their property, upon their deaths, to the hospice.

 

Successful and beloved at home, King Louis the Ninth nonetheless could not resist another attempt at a Crusade in 1270. Almost at once, he met his death when a fever swept the French camp in Tunis. Because of his piety, the Church canonized him in 1297 as “St. Louis.” In an odd coincidence, he would one day have a city named after him that would play an important role, 600 years later, in the acceptance of Braille in America.

 

One Day at the Fair:

 

St. Ovid’s Fair was one of Paris’s lively and popular religious street festivals. Beginning in 1665, the Fair ran from August 14 to September 15 each year and featured merchants, puppet shows, tightrope walkers, jugglers, animal acts, and food vendors. By the 1770’s, the fair moved to the Place de la Concorde, near today’s Hotel Le Crillon.

 

In 1771, a young man named Valentin Haúy visited St. Ovid’s Fair and stopped at a sidewalk cafe for lunch. What he felt about what he saw there would begin to change the world for blind people forever.

A group of blind men from the Quinze-Vingts were performing a slapstick comedy act, pretending to be what many other blind people actually were—musicians. They wore dunce caps, donkeys’ ears, and huge cardboard glasses. Seated before sheets of music turned upside down, they clowned for the crowd by making squawking, discordant noises on old musical instruments. The act was a hit, but Haúy was so sickened he could not finish his lunch. He decided on the spot that blind people needed formal education to make something better of their lives.

 

Valentin Haúy was exactly the right person at the right time to have this inspiration. Born in 1745 in the small village of Saint-Just-en-Chausée, Valentin at age 6 relocated with his family, who were weavers by trade, to Paris. He and his talented brother, René-Just, who became a famed scientist and founded the field of crystallography, flourished amidst the tremendous educational opportunities in the city. Valentin became a skilled linguist who spoke ten living languages in addition to ancient Greek and Hebrew. While not personally wealthy, (he earned his living translating and authenticating documents) he was well connected, in part due to his brother’s eminence in the new Royal Academy of Sciences.

Once Haúy became interested in education for the blind, he turned himself into an authority on the subject, visiting blind people from wealthy families to learn what methods they used to cope with various tasks. His own energy and flair for public relations would prove extraordinary, and so would his luck. In the spring of 1784, while on another walk in Paris, he found the perfect student.

As Haúy departed Saint Germain des Prés church after services, he pressed a coin into the hand of a young blind boy begging near the entrance of the church. When the boy instantly called out the denomination correctly, Haúy had a startling insight: The blind could learn a great deal, perhaps even reading, using the sense of touch.

 

The beggar, 12-year-old François Lesueur, became Haúy’s first pupil. François had been blind since infancy and had spent much of his short life begging on the streets of Paris to support his family. Haúy made up François’ lost earnings from begging while he taught him to read by using wooden letters he moved around to form words. François was a very quick study; within six months he had learned to decipher even the faint impressions on the back side of printed pages. Haúy brought him to    the Royal Academy, where his skills stunned France’s top scholars and scientists.

 

Saint Germain des Prés, where Valentin Haúy first encountered François Lesueur. The House on Rue Saint-Victor. Haúy, made the most of this triumph, soliciting help from celebrities of the day, such as Maria Theresia von Paradis, a young blind girl with an international reputation as a piano prodigy. Making his own living in linguistics, Haúy was well-positioned to know of Louis XVI’s avocational interest in old manuscripts and secret codes and successfully solicited the king’s financial help. At first, he operated the school from his home, but as the project grew, he was able to attract sufficient royal support to lease a building.

 

With twenty-four pupils, Haúy opened the world’s first school for the blind, the Royal Institution for Blind Children, at 68 Rue Saint-Victor. The school’s first building was by then already over 500 years old and had endured hard use as, among other things, an orphanage founded by St. Vincent dePaul, the patron saint of charitable societies, and a house of ill repute. The interior was dank, cramped, and in poor repair, with narrow stairwells, tiny rooms and walls clammy to the touch.

 

Despite the dismal surroundings, the school, which accepted only students of either noble birth or great intelligence, was an immediate success. Within two years, the Academy of Music would sponsor benefit concerts for the school while Haúy kept the royal funds flowing by taking the children to Versailles to entertain the king at Christmas with demonstrations of reading, arithmetic, and using tactile maps. Since the school had almost at once established a print shop run by the students to make embossed books, Haúy had them make up a run of specially bound “samples” for the nobles at Court. The text was Haúy’s own landmark book: An Essay On The Education Of The Blind. One of these performances at court was attended by Marquis d’Orvilliers, a nobleman from a small village east of Paris—Coupvray.

 

“Baby Braille” From the Country:

 

Some years later in Coupvray would be born Louis Braille, the fourth child of a saddle maker. In 1812 at the age of 3, Louis injured his eye in an accident while playing with his father’s tools. One local legend has it that the distraction that caused Louis’ father to leave his workbench unattended, with its dangerous attractions for a curious toddler, was the news of Napoleon’s army heading for what would become eventual catastrophe in Russia.

 

Despite (or perhaps because of) the ministrations of the local healer, an old woman who first treated Louis’ damaged eye with lily water, followed by those of an eye doctor in a nearby town, infection set in. Other ineffective treatments followed, including a dose of calomel, a laxative. Over the next year, the infection spread to the other eye, and Louis Braille lost all of his vision.

 

To add to the troubles of the Braille family, Napoleon’s constant war with the rest of Europe caused their town to be overrun by armies—not only the retreating French, but their enemies, the Prussians and the Russians. Over the two years from 1814 to 1816, sixty-four different soldiers stayed in the Braille’s’ modest three-room home. Their never-ending demand for food, animals, and lodging caused severe hardship in the town. By 1816, war deprivations had worn down the health of the citizens, and a smallpox epidemic sprang up. People, including Louis Braille’s father, did not trust the government-promoted vaccinations, and many in the town fell ill.

 

Fortunately, at about the same time, other new people also came to Coupvray—a priest, Abbé Jacques Palluy, and a schoolmaster, Antoiné Bécheret. They came to know Louis well and came up with the then revolutionary idea of allowing him to attend regular school. Both Louis’ parents could read and write, and his older brothers and sisters had all attended the same school as children. Louis had long been enthralled by his sister Catherine’s stories remembered from her own school days. Louis did so well in school that when the government decreed new local school methods that would have prevented Louis from continuing his education, Bécheret and Palluy approached the local nobleman for help in securing Louis’ admission to Valentin Haúy’s school for the blind in Paris.

 

The nobleman was Marquis d’Orvilliers, a survivor of the recent smallpox epidemic, who, having seen Valentin Haúy’s students perform at Versailles, agreed to write to the current director of the school, Sebastian Guillié, and secure Louis’ admission on a scholarship. In February, 1819, 10-year-old Louis and his father made the four-hour stagecoach trip to Paris. Louis became the youngest student at the school for the blind.

 

The school taught several practical trades—weaving, knitting, spinning, shoemaking, basketry and rope making—as well as basic academic subjects. While students had unprecedented learning opportunities, they were also essentially unpaid employees—and hard-working, closely supervised ones at that. They wore uniforms and lived spartan and regimented lives, with one bath a month, scarce heat and poor food, mostly beans and porridge. The school’s drinking water was unfiltered and direct from the River Seine. A dinner of dry bread (served in solitary confinement) was a standard punishment.

 

Despite the hardships, Louis adjusted quickly to the school and made the first of the many friends there he would keep all his life, fellow student Gabriel Gauthier, one year older. He needed allies because the older students often teased him about his country accent and called him “Baby Braille” because of his youth.

 

The First Books for Blind Readers:

 

Director Guillié, running the school at the time of Louis’ admission, was an ophthalmologist by vocation who had founded the first eye clinic in Paris and survived the many changes of government during the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic era. In the twenty years encompassing the Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, nearly a million Frenchmen had died; half of them under twenty-eight years of age. During the worst times of the Revolution, the school building itself was used to jail uncooperative priests (including Valentin Haúy’s own brother) who refused to swear allegiance to the new government, and 170 of them were murdered there in 1792.

 

The nobles who had once helped the school in the past were themselves killed, jailed or in flight from France. The school was absorbed by Guillie’s eye clinic and for a time was also combined with the school for the deaf, another ground-breaking Parisian facility that predated even Haúy’s first efforts towards education for the blind. The blind students ultimately were forced into the Quinze-Vingts, now overcrowded, chaotic, and largely the home of last resort for elderly blind beggars.

 

Guillie’s interest in reestablishing the school for the blind was not entirely humanitarian, for when he got the building back and reopened, he reclaimed only the most promising students from the Quinze-Vingts. With few teachers, Guillié relied heavily on older students acting as tutors or “repeaters” to give lessons verbally to younger students. Although the “repeaters” did not know it, Guillié had some success in reestablishing government support for the school and received a small stipend for the older students’ teaching time, which he personally pocketed. He instituted harsh schedules and discipline to drive up the students’ productivity, even as rain occasionally poured through the building’s leaking roofs into the workshops and classrooms.

 

Goods the students produced were sold all over Paris and produced a vital stream of revenue: thus creating the first sheltered workshop.  For example, among their other skills, the students wove the fabric for their own uniforms, which were, depending on the account, either blue or black. Guillié obtained a contract for the school to weave sheets for Paris’ huge system of public hospitals. The largest of these hospitals, La Salpétrière, had a capacity of more than 10,000 inmates.

 

The few wealthy potential patrons who remained were often taken on tours through the school and workshop, with the students’ reading of the few embossed books a highlight of the trip. Haúy’s original method of embossing books had continued unchanged for three decades. By applying soaked paper to raised letter forms, the tactile shape of the letters remained after the paper dried. Pages were then glued back-to-front to produce a two-sided sheet. These books were, of course, extraordinarily slow and difficult to make—and almost as slow and difficult to read, since the shape of each large, ornate letter had to be traced individually. At the time of Louis Braille’s admission, the school, now over thirty years old, had one hundred pupils and a total of fourteen embossed books.

 

In 1821, Dr. Guillié was fired after being caught in “an intimate relationship” with a female teacher when she became pregnant. The school’s new director, André Pignier, immediately resolved to improve conditions, first instituting two outings a week so students could breathe fresh air and get some exercise away from their desks and workbenches. Students began to travel through the city, all gripping one long rope as a guide, to attend mass on Sunday at St. Nicholas du Chardonnet, church and to go on a Thursday afternoon excursion to a local botanical park.

 

St. Nicholas du Chardonnay, where the blind students attended church, is still there today.

Another Pignier reform was to stage a public celebration of the school’s history, at which the guest of honor would be founder Valentin Haúy. Haúy, now an old man, had not been inside the school in years. Losing control of the school in the aftermath of the revolution, he had been forced to flee France. Before his departure, he rescued one of his most promising students, Rémi Fournier, from the chaos at the Quinze Vingts. Together they spent over a decade in virtual exile working with blind students in other European countries, including Russia. Schools for the blind were an idea who time had definitely come, with Liverpool (1791), Vienna (1804), Berlin and St. Petersburg (1806), Amsterdam (1808), Dresden (1809), Zurich (1810), and Copenhagen (1811) appearing in rapid succession using many of Haúy’s ideas and methods. Upon his return to France, Haúy, exhausted, destitute, and himself nearly blind, had found he still banned from the school by the unsympathetic Dr. Guillié.

 

On the day of the ceremony to honor Haúy, Louis Braille, now 12, along with several other students, gave a musical program of songs from the school’s early days and a reading demonstration using the original embossed books for Haúy, now 76. Later in the day, the two met face to face, one year before Haúy’s death. Louis Braille would remember the occasion for the rest of his life. The following year, he was one of a small group from the school to attend Haúy’s meager funeral. Valentin Haúy’s print embossed letters were widely spaced and used ornate fonts.

 

Too Tough for the Artillery:

 

Another visitor a short time later would have an equally large influence on Louis Braille’s future. Charles Barbier de la Serre was another quick-witted survivor of the political turmoil that engulfed France. Barbier was born in Valenciennes in 1767, his father the controller of the farms of the king. Charles thus secured admission to a royal military academy in 1782, probably in Brienne, which if true’ would have made him one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s schoolmates. Barbier fled the Revolution by spending some time in the United States as a land-surveyor, in Indian territory and returned to France by 1808, where he joined Napoleon’s army and published a table for quick writing or “Expediography,” followed a year later by a book describing how to write several copies of a message at once.

 

Barbier’s interest in fast, secret writing was grounded in harsh experience. The French army under Napoleon had been defeated for the last time at Waterloo in 1815, but before that, they had nearly conquered Europe and were considered even by their enemies to be the best artillerymen in the world. In his own war experiences, Barbier had seen all the troops in a forward gun post annihilated when they betrayed their position by lighting a single lamp to read a message. A tactile system for sending and receiving messages could be useful not only at night, but in maintaining communications during combat with its unique terrors for artillery crews. Dense, blinding smoke and thunderous noise combined to create hellish confusion. Should the battle go badly for the horses that transported the huge guns, the surviving artillery crew would find itself immobilized in a tangle of guns, harnesses and dead or dying animals with no means of escape as the bullets flew.

 

Barbier and the students of the Institution for Blind Children probably first encountered each other when both were exhibiting their communication methods at the Museum of Science and Industry, then located in the Louvre. Barbier had a device that enabled the writer to create messages in the dark; the students were reading, with the usual painful slowness, Haúy’s books of embossed print letters.

Barbier decided to take his own dot- and dash-based artillery code, called Sonography, to the Royal Institution for Blind Children and contacted Dr. Guillié, then still the director. Guillié, who would be fired eight days later, was unenthusiastic about sonography and its possible use for the blind. He sent Barbier away with little encouragement.

 

Fortunately, Barbier was persistent. He returned to the school in the wake of the sex scandal and interested Dr. Pignier, the new director, in his system. Dr. Pignier arranged a demonstration and passed around a few embossed pages of dots to the students

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Louis Braille was thunderstruck when he first touched the dots of the sonography samples. He had often played around with tactile writing at home on summer vacation in Coupvray. Neighbors later recalled that as a child Louis had tried leather in various shapes and even arranged upholstery pins in patterns, hoping to find a workable tactile communication method, but with no success. Once he touched the dots, he knew he had found his medium and quickly learned to use Barbier’s “ruler,” which greatly resembles today’s slate. He, his friend Gabriel, and other boys at the school taught each other the code by writing each other messages back and forth. Only one week later, Dr. Pignier wrote Barbier that sonography would be used at the school as a supplementary writing method.

 

Originally, b was 4 dots—z was 9. The entire cell was 12 dots, twice as tall as today’s Braille cell.

Louis was also quick to see the problems with Barbier’s system, which was never actually used by the army because of its complexity. Sonography used a 12-dot cell, which is not only more than a fingertip can cover, but laborious to write with a stylus. There were no punctuation marks, numbers or musical signs, and there were lots of abbreviations, because the cells stood for sounds instead of letters. When Louis met with Captain Barbier to talk about his ideas to improve the code, the Captain, by now in his mid-fifties, was probably at first incredulous and then annoyed at having his ideas questioned by someone so young, inexperienced, and blind as well.

 

Instead of arguing with the imperious Captain, Louis stopped asking his advice altogether and instead went to work experimenting with the code on his own. He had little spare time; he won prizes that semester in geography, history, mathematics, and piano while also working as the foreman of the slipper shop at the school. Still, late at night and at home in Coupvray, during the summer, Louis tried various modifications that would enable the unique letter symbols to fit under one fingertip.

 

In October, 1824, Louis, now 15, unveiled his new alphabet right after the start of school. He had found sixty-three ways to use a six-dot cell (though some dashes were still included). His new alphabet was received enthusiastically by the other students and by Dr. Pignier, who ordered the special slates Louis had designed from Captain Barbier’s original one. Gabriel Gauthier, still Louis’ best friend, was probably the very person ever to read Braille.

 

The obvious usefulness and popularity of Louis’ invention did not make his own life much easier. Bad times in France in 1825 caused the school’s rations of fuel to be further reduced and the already-spare diet was reduced to bread and soup. The teachers all sighted; resented the new code, with its implied demand that they learn something so alien. Worried for their own jobs, they complained that the sound of punching was disrupting classes. The school had finally achieved some financial stability with a government stipend from the Ministry of the Interior, but in 1826, the school bookkeeper fled after embezzling an amount equal to one-half the annual budget.

 

Dr. Pignier appealed to the government repeatedly over the next several years for official recognition of the new alphabet as well for repair or replacement of the deteriorating building. His requests were denied, but the director continued his support for the boys’ use of the new code, moved by their proficiency and enthusiasm. He promised Louis he would continue to petition the government and in the meantime arranged for Louis to become the first blind organ student at St. Anne’s Church.

 

The school for the blind had produced many organists; by Louis’ time, over fifty graduates were playing in churches around Paris. Louis proved an exceptionally talented musician, was heard (and praised) by Felix Mendelssohn, and a few years later obtained the first of several jobs as a church organist.

 

First Books in Braille:

 

Dr. Pignier created still another opportunity for Louis. At 17, he appointed Louis the first blind apprentice teacher at the school. The other teachers were incensed but Pignier insisted that Louis’ “conscientiousness, scholarship and patience” fitted him perfectly for the job. He taught algebra, grammar, music, and geography. Despite his busy schedule, he kept tinkering with the code. By 1828, he had found a way to copy music in his new code (and eliminated the dashes).

 

In 1829, at age 20, he published “Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them”, his first complete book about his new system. A few years later, he, Gabriel Gauthier and another blind friend and former pupil, Hippolyte Coltat, would become the first blind full professors at the school. This meant they could leave the school occasionally without asking someone’s permission, got their own rooms, and had gold braid added to their school uniforms as a mark of rank. All three new teachers used the new alphabet in all their classes.

 

The same year, Louis Braille was drafted and was represented at the recruiting board by his father. A census record of this encounter survived and shows that Louis was exempt from the French army because he was blind, as a result of which he “could not read or write,” an ironic footnote for someone who had largely solved one of the great problems of literacy before he was out of his teens.

 

Spending so much of his life in the damp, dirty, and cold school building and living on a poor diet probably caused Louis to develop tuberculosis in his mid-twenties. The diagnosis would not have surprised him. For years, his fellow students had become ill in such numbers that a visitor complained that the students could barely stand for long in a straight line for all the coughing and wheezing. Student funerals were a sadly frequent occurrence.

 

For the rest of his life, Louis would have periods of health and energy interspersed with terrifying hemorrhages and near-fatal collapses. Still, despite his illness, teaching load, and several jobs playing the organ, he worked on at refining the code. Although French does not use a “W,” Louis added it later at the request of an English student, the blind son of Sir George Hayter, painter and portraitist to the British royal family. He worked hard on a Braille music code as well, probably spurred not only by his own musical abilities, but by those of his friends as well. Gabriel Gauthier, who would also become ill with tuberculosis, was a composer as well as an organist, who would eventually produce his own work among the first volumes of Braille music.

 

First “Braille-Print” System:

 

Louis was a very popular teacher, generous with both time and money in helping his students. He made many personal gifts and loans from his small salary to help them buy warm clothes and better food. (He also saved enough to buy himself a piano so he could practice whenever he wished). Because students typically had no way of writing home to their families without dictating a letter to a sighted teacher, Louis invented raphigraphy, which represents the alphabet with large print letters composed of Braille dots. Raphigraphy, was a labor-intensive system for making an embossed print letter—the letter “I” alone required the braillist to punch 16 dots by hand.

 

A blind inventor, François-Pierre Foucault, had been a student at the school back in the Quinze-Vingts days after the Revolution. He returned in 1841 and when he saw what Louis Braille was doing, invented a machine called a “piston board,” to punch complete dot-drawn letters with a press of a single key.

Ironically, the first working print typewriter had been built in 1808 in Italy to help a blind countess, Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzono, produce legible writing for sighted people, but print typewriters were not produced on any scale until the 1870’s. In the meantime, the piston board (although expensive) itself became a common device throughout Europe.

 

The letter I in raphigraphy—4 horizontal dots on top and bottom, and 8 vertical in 2 rows in the middle.

In 1834, Dr. Pignier arranged for Louis to demonstrate his code at the Paris Exposition of Industry, attended by visitors from all over the world. King Louis Phillippe of France presided over the opening of the show and even spoke with Louis about his invention, but, like other contemporary observers, did not seem to understand that what he saw was potentially far more than an amusing trick.

 

Louis revised the book on his alphabet in 1837, the same year the school published the first Braille book in the world, a three-volume history of France. The publishing method consisted of full-cell blocks of Braille type. While setting up the pages, students broke off unneeded dots from each block to make the correct letters. The print shop at the school was directed by Rémi Fournier, the student Valentin Haúy had brought along on his flight from France nearly thirty years before.

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What’s Best? And Who Decides?

 

It seems obvious today that these practical inspirations should have been seen for the epoch-making advances they were. It must have been electrifying for the students to be able to write and read for the first time with speed and accuracy equaling or exceeding that of many sighted people, and it must have been thrilling to observe.

 

The full extent of this triumph completely eluded authorities of the time, however, for Louis’ book was not the most heralded publishing project at the school in the year 1837. Assistant director P. Armand Dufau, a former geography teacher at the school, published “The Blind: Considerations on Their Physical, Moral and Intellectual State, With a Complete Description of the Means Suitable to Improve Their Lot Using Instruction”. Word of Dufay’s book won the prestigious prize from the Académie Française which the year before had been awarded to Alexis de Tocqueville for his well-known book on America. Dufau, a staunch Braille opponent who believed Braille made the blind “too independent,” included no mention of his subordinate’s innovation in his book.

 

The prize from the Académie meant Dufau found his own fortunes sharply on the rise, and he did use some of his new influence in a good cause. For years, reports by government medical authorities induced to visit the school by Dr. Pignier’s constant pleas had noted that students there often had a “sickly appearance” but nothing was done.

 

Finally, in 1838, poet and historian Alphonse de Lamartine toured the school and was appalled at the terrible conditions. He made a powerful appeal to France’s Chamber of Deputies for a new building, declaring, “No description could give you a true idea of this building, which is small, dirty, and gloomy; of those passages partitioned off to form boxes dignified by the name of workshops or classrooms, of those many tortuous, worm-eaten staircases…If this whole assembly was to rise now and go en masse to this place, the vote for this bill would be unanimous!”

 

The speech was effective, and plans began for a new school building across town in a more wholesome location on the Boulevard des Invalides. Meanwhile, while the building was under construction, Dufau forced Dr. Pignier from his position as director, using his influence (and some imaginative embellishment) to convince Ministry officials that Dr. Pignier was teaching history with a slant unbecoming to the government. Dr. Pignier was vulnerable; he had had a Catholic education in his youth (always suspect in post-Revolutionary France), and he had made chronic trouble with the authorities over adopting the Braille code and improving the poor condition of the building.

 

Louis’ deteriorating health forced him to turn down a job in a mountain locale that might have even lengthened his life had he had the stamina to make the journey to tutor to a blind prince of the Austrian royal family. At last, he took a long leave of absence to regain strength in Coupvray.

 

When Louis returned to the school in October, 1843, he found that he was about to sustain another defeat. Dufau was hard at work making still more changes, among them deleting “frivolous” subjects like history, Latin, and geometry from the curriculum, to allow time for more work-related training. Since winning the prestigious award some years earlier and engineering Pignier’s removal, Dufau had sufficient official support to obtain a large budget increase for the school. He decided to revolutionize the school’s standard reading medium—not using Braille’s code but adopting a British system invented by John Alston of the Asylum for the Blind in Glasgow. Another print-like tactile system, Alston differed from Haúy in that it used very simplified letter forms without swirls or serifs. Alston had printed an entire Bible (in 19 volumes) using this new system a few years before. Dufau liked it very much. Alston’s type, looks similar to Letter Gothic or IBM Orator.

 

A Book-Burning and a Rebellion:

 

To dramatize and enforce the new system, Dufau made a bonfire in the school’s rear courtyard and burned not only the embossed books created by Haúy’s original process, but every book printed or hand transcribed in Louis’ new code—the school’s entire library and the product of nearly fifty years’ work. To make sure no Braille would ever again be used at the school, he also burned and confiscated the slates, styli, and other Braille-writing equipment.

 

Outraged, the students rebelled. Behind Dufau’s back, they wrote Braille even without slates—sending messages and keeping secret diaries written with knitting needles, forks or nails. Dufau’s punishments for Braille use, which included being slapped across the hands and sent to bed without dinner, were completely ineffective. The older students taught the younger ones the system in secret. Braille, once learned, proved impossible to suppress.

 

Finally, Dufau’s clever assistant, Joseph Guadet, had been watching the students and became an ardent Braille supporter, teaching himself to read and write the code. He persuaded Dufau that if powerful people in government heard that the students were unified in willfully defying Dufau’s authority, his job might be at risk. If, however, a student invented something successful, the school would share the credit, which could only enhance the reputation of its leader.

 

So, when the school moved into its new building in November, 1843, P. Armand Dufau was a changed man, supplying every student with a new Braille slate. Euphoric at having defeated the Braille ban, students got up a petition and sent it to the government nominating Louis Braille for the French Legion of Honor for making true communication possible for the blind. The petition, however, was ignored.

 

Reversal of Fortune:

 

Louis’ public triumph would finally come at the building’s dedication ceremony the following February. Dufau glowingly described Louis Braille’s system of writing with raised dots to the crowd, even having a student (one of the newly admitted girls) give a demonstration. An official in the audience cried out that it was all a trick, that the child writing Braille and reading it back must have memorized the text in advance. In reply, Dufau asked the man to find some printed material in his pocket, which turned out to be a theater ticket, and to read it to the student Braillist. The little girl reproduced the text and read it back flawlessly before the man even returned to his seat. The crowd, convinced, applauded wildly for a full six minutes.

Louis Braille spent the last eight years of his life teaching occasionally and Brailling books for the school library school as he battled his declining health. People were starting to call the dot system by his name, “Braille,” and a growing number of inquiries about it were reaching the school from all over the world. When Dufau published the second edition of his influential book in 1850, he devoted several enthusiastic pages to the Braille system. Still, when Louis Braille died on January 6, 1852, just two days past his forty-third birthday, not a single Paris newspaper noted his passing.

 

His system survived, and in 1854, France adopted Braille as its official communications system for blind people. The Braille system spread to Switzerland soon after but encountered tremendous resistance in England, Germany and America, and often for the same reason: Braille’s seeming opacity to the sighted because of its lack of resemblance to print.

 

The fact that the blind might want to write because they had something to say, as well as read what others have written, incredibly seems never to have occurred to many of these educators. The writing factor—Braille is easy to write, while raised print letter forms are virtually impossible—was a huge point in securing Braille’s lasting place in its users’ lives.

 

A later Braille reader, Helen Keller, wrote: “Braille has been a most precious aid to me in many ways. It made my going to college possible—it was the only method by which I could take notes of lectures. All my examination papers were copied for me in this system. I use Braille as a spider uses its web—to catch thoughts that flit across my mind for speeches, messages and manuscripts.

 

If Louis Braille had ever had the time to write his own thoughts on solving problems, dealing with hardship, and persevering through setbacks, few would disagree that would have been a story well worth reading, regardless of what medium originally held the words. Curiously, many educators of the blind seem to have made a highly personal mission out of devising conflicting codes with seemingly little regard for their practical implications. Ferocious partisanship developed over these code systems.

 

The United Kingdom seems to have been the one bright exception. Thomas Rhodes Armitage, a wealthy physician who struggled with vision problems himself, convened a committee of other blind people “with knowledge of at least three systems of embossed type and having no financial interest in any” to evaluate the various codes and make a decision on which one would be best for Britain. During the two years the committee deliberated, they surveyed dozens of blind readers and two years later, in 1870, Braille won, though it was many years more before it was fully implemented. The United States only fully came to the use of Braille in the twentieth century.

 

While many of the competing codes did not thrive much past the end of the 19th century, the innovators they attracted often did move Braille publishing forward in unexpected ways. William Bell Wait, superintendent of the New York Institute for the Blind, introduced a now almost forgotten code called “New York Point” in 1868. More lastingly, Wait gave an eloquent argument in the Senate Education Committee that helped secure the first annual grant from Congress for embossed books for the blind in 1879, thus securing an important financial channel for publishing for the blind in the United States. Obsessed with saving Braille paper, Wait also created the first two-sided simultaneous mechanical embossing process for New York Point sometime in the 1890’s, doubling the information carrying capacity of each sheet of paper in a Braille book, thus inventing interpoint.13 New York Point.

 

In 1860, the first American institution to adopt Braille was, ironically, the Missouri School for the Blind, located in St. Louis—a city named for Louis IX of France, founder of the Quinze-Vingts hospice in Paris 600 years before.

 

Modern Times:

 

The Quinze-Vingts still exists today and is now a high-tech ophthalmologic hospital, as well as a residence for the blind. Ironically, just as St. Apollonia was thought to relieve toothache, and St. Eutropius, dropsy, St. Ovid’s special purpose was reputed to be curing deafness.

 

The wooden stalls and benches used for St. Ovid’s Fair were destroyed in a fire in 1777. In 1792, the square where it had been held was renamed “Place de la Revolution”, By 1793, the only spectacle there was the guillotine. Over 1,000 executions took place there, including those of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette.

The original building of the Royal Institution for Blind Children later served as an army barracks and then a warehouse. It was torn down in the 1930’s and replaced by a post office, itself now vanished. The last building Louis Braille would have known and where he died on the Rue des Invalides is still the location of the school for the blind today.

 

The 1843 school is a large, imposing 3-story building with tall windows fronting the main street.

Valentin Haúy is one of the great humanitarians (joining, among others, Abraham Lincoln, St. Francis of Assisi, and Florence Nightingale) immortalized in the stone carvings adorning New York City’s Riverside Church. His life and work are also remembered in a museum on Rue Duroc in modern Paris, open Tuesday and Wednesday from 2:30 – 5:00 pm, closed from July 1st to September 15th annually. Admission is free.

 

Louis Braille was also not the only ground-breaking alumnus of the school’s early days. In 1830, Claude Montal, the first blind piano tuner and a graduate of the school for the blind, started his career in Paris. By 1834 he had published “How to Tune Your Piano Yourself” and went on to open his own shop. The school has also produced an unprecedented stream of world-famous organists that continues right up to our own time, including Louis Vierne, André Marchal, and Jean Langlais. The present organist at Notre-Dame Cathedral, Jean-Pierre Leguay, is also blind.

 

Louis Braille’s will, dictated to a notary less than a week before his death, included bequests not only to his family, but to the servant who cleaned his room, the infirmary aide, and the night watchman at the school. His clothes and personal belongings went to his students as mementos. He made one odd request, instructing friends to burn a small box in his room without opening it. After his death, they were unable to resist a peek and found the box stuffed with IOUs in Braille from students who had borrowed money from their generous teacher. The notes were finally burned in keeping with his wishes.

 

Upon Louis Braille’s death, Hippolyte Coltat inherited his piano and worked hard to advance his legacy. His warm recollections of his teacher and friend at a memorial service at the school served as Braille’s first biography. Another of Louis Braille’s friends, Gabriel Gauthier, would outlive him only a short time. He also died of tuberculosis.

 

The Braille home in Coupvray, still standing, has also become a museum. Louis Braille was originally buried in a simple grave in the small cemetery in his hometown. In 1952, on the one-hundredth anniversary of his death, public feeling grew that his remains should be moved to the Pantheon in Paris, where France’s national heroes are buried. The mayor of Coupvray protested that Louis Braille was a true child of the area and that some of him should remain in his home village. His hands were separated from his arms and re-buried separately in Coupvray.

 

The rest of his body was interred in the Pantheon following a huge public ceremony at the Sorbonne attended by dignitaries from all over the world, including Helen Keller, who gave a speech in what the New York Times reported as “faultlessly grammatical” French. She declared, to a rousing ovation from the hundreds of other Braille readers in attendance, that “we, the blind, are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg”. As the coffin was borne through the streets of Paris towards the Pantheon, hundreds of white canes tapped along behind in what the Times, its own fortunes founded in literacy and publishing, called (with no apparent hint of irony) a “strange, heroic procession.” The Pantheon is in the Paris’ fifth arrondissement, only a few blocks from the original school for the blind.

 

Louis Braille’s writing system eventually spread throughout the world and, of course, became known by his name. Curiously, considering that Louis’ father was a harness and saddle maker, there is an English word, brail, which describes a rope used in sailing and is derived from a 15th century French word braiel, meaning “strap”. Thus, it seems reasonable to speculate that the family name was probably derived from an ancestor’s similar occupation.

 

Despite the fact that the Braille dots still do not resemble print letters (a complaint often heard to this day), it has been adapted to nearly every language on earth and remains the major medium of literacy for blind people everywhere. Debunking the myth that Braille is somehow “too difficult” for the sighted to learn, sighted transcribers have long been a primary source of textbooks for blind students. Thousands of these volunteers learned Braille as an avocation and churned out books one cell at a time from kitchen tables and bedroom offices everywhere for many years with little fanfare. Their efforts in the United States have, if anything, expanded over the last decade with the coming of the computer age and the mainstreaming of blind students in public schools.

 

Whether through software translators or direct entry, Braille turned out to be extraordinarily well suited to computer-assisted production due to its elegance and efficiency. Braille displays for navigating and reading computer text in real time have become increasingly affordable and reliable as well. Thus, the computer age created an unprecedented and continuing explosion in the amount of Braille published and read throughout the world.

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