History of Braille

Braille History – French Military Combat Code Evolves to Bring Literacy and Independence to Millions

What is Braille?

Image showing the Braille Alphabet and Numerals - Created and owned by Braille Works

Braille is a system of touch reading and writing for blind persons in which raised dots represent the letters of the alphabet.  Braille also contains equivalents for punctuation marks and provides symbols to show letter groupings.

Braille is read by moving the hand or hands from left to right along each line.  Both hands are usually involved in the reading process, and reading is generally done with the index fingers.  The average reading speed is about 125 words per minute, but greater speeds of up to 200 words per minute are possible.

By using the braille alphabet, people who are blind can review and study the written word.  They can also become aware of different written conventions such as spelling, punctuation, paragraphing and footnotes.

Most of all, braille gives blind individuals access to a wide range of reading materials including recreational and educational reading, financial statements and restaurant menus.  Equally important are contracts, regulations, insurance policies, directories and cookbooks that are all part of daily adult life.  Through braille, people who are blind can also pursue hobbies and cultural enrichment with materials such as music scores, hymnals, playing cards, and board games.

Various other methods had been attempted over the years to enable reading for the blind; many of them raised versions of print letters.  It is generally accepted that the braille system has succeeded because it is based on a rational sequence of signs devised for the fingertips, rather than imitating signs devised for the eyes.

Charles Barbier’s “Night-Writing”

The history of braille goes all the way back to the early 1800’s. A man named Charles Barbier who served in Napoleon Bonaparte’s French army developed a unique system known as “night writing” so soldiers could communicate safely during the night. Being a military veteran, Barbier had seen several soldiers killed because they used lamps after dark to read combat messages. The light shining from the lamps told enemy combatants where the French soldiers were and inevitably led to the loss of many men.

Charles Barbier's Sonography Table also known as "Night Writing"

Charles Barbier’s Sonography Table, also known as “Night Writing”. Photo source: ParisLessTraveled.WordPress.com

Barbier based his “night writing” system on a raised 12-dot cell; two dots wide and six dots tall. Each dot or combination of dots within the cell represented a letter or a phonetic sound. The problem with the military code was that the human fingertip could not feel all the dots with one touch.

Enter Louis Braille

Louis Braille was born in the village of Coupvray, France on January 4, 1809. He was blinded at a very young age after he accidentally stabbed himself in the eye with his father’s awl. Braille’s father was a leather-worker and used the awl to poke holes in the leather goods he produced.

Image showing an artist's sketch of Louis Braille

At eleven years old, Braille was inspired to modify Charles Barbier’s “night writing” code in an effort to create an efficient written communication system for fellow blind individuals. One year earlier he was enrolled at the National Institute of the Blind in Paris and spent the better part of the next nine years developing and refining the system of raised dots that has come to be known by his name, Braille.

After all of Braille’s work, the code was now based on cells with only 6-dots instead of 12 (like the example shown below). This improvement was crucial because it meant that a fingertip could encompass the entire cell unit with one impression and move rapidly from one cell to the next. Over time, braille gradually came to be accepted throughout the world as the fundamental form of written communication for blind individuals, and today it remains basically as he invented it.

Image of a Braille Cell with dot positions numbered

However, there have been some small modifications to the braille system, particularly the addition of contractions representing groups of letters or whole words that appear frequently in a language.  The use of contractions permits faster braille reading and helps reduce the size of braille books, making them much less cumbersome.

Braille passed away in 1853 at the age of 43, a year before his home country of France adopted braille as its’ official communication system for blind individuals. A few years later in 1860, braille made its way “across the pond” to America where it was adopted by The Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis.

Legacy of Braille Benefits Millions

Louis Braille’s legacy has enlightened the lives of millions of people who are blind. Blind individuals from all over the world benefit from Braille’s work daily. Today, braille code is transcribed in many different languages worldwide. Louis would be very proud to know his creation has given literacy to countless numbers of people over the decades. Now people who are blind can enjoy all the printed-word has to offer just like everyone else. The effect is tremendously empowering and helps them achieve success in school and in their careers.

Several groups have been established over the last century to modify and standardize the braille code. Visit the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) for the latest news and developments on braille.

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