Today is the Birthday of Louis Braille. Braille? That name sounds familiar …
Louis Braille was a teacher and advocate of the blind in France in the early 1800s. He was blinded himself at the age of 3 by an accident in his father’s leather shop, but despite this handicap, he excelled when his father sent him to school with sighted children. He was also a gifted musician, learning to play the cello and organ at an early age. While attending the National Institute of Blind Youth, he was inspired by a lecture he heard about a new system of embossed symbols, called sonography, invented by Captain Charles Barbier [although some say that Braille learned about the Barbier system in a newspaper account]. Barbier’s system was a method for soldiers to communicate silently during wartime field operations using dots and dashes embossed on leather.
Braille’s experiments and refinements of an embossing technique resulted in a six-dot code based on the letters of the alphabet that could be felt with the finger-tips. After working with the number and placement of the dots, Braille was able to code not only letters, but also common words, symbols, and mathematical and musical notations that could be quickly read, stored compactly and useful for both reading and writing.
Braille was only twenty when he published his coding system. His second expanded system was demonstrated at the Paris Exposition of Industry in 1834 and received praise of the French King, Louis Philippe. The system was not well-received though by sighted instructors of the blind and school board members who feared the loss of their jobs to a well-educated blind populace and continued to advocate for the existing embossed-letter system. That embossed-letter system used heavy paper with raised Latin letters that students found to be cumbersome and slow to read and was in no way suitable for writing.
Braille was an admired and respected musician and teacher at the National Institute of Blind Youth when he fell seriously ill with tuberculosis. One of his former students, a blind musician, let the audience know after her performance in Paris that she had learned using the Braille system. Renewed interest in the system grew and persistent advocating by blind students resulted in a revival of the system, but it was still not fully accepted until 1854, two years after Braille’s death.
Braille’s revolutionary invention has now been adapted for a multitude of languages and is now in use world-wide. It has been modified periodically and the newest innovations include Braille computer terminals, a Braille email delivery service and further developments in mathematical and scientific notations.
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