Did you know that the inventor of braille was a 15 year old boy? Find out more about the amazing story of Louis Braille, and how this tactile writing system came to be.
Every now and then someone really special comes along who changes the world in a major way.
Louis Braille was one of these rare people – he didn’t just revolutionise the way things had always been done, he seriously improved the quality of life of a large group of people.
Not many people know much about how braille was created, or Louis Braille’s story. Read on and we’ll fill you in on this amazing tale.
Louis Braille bust with leathering equipment: Exhibit of leathering tools including an awl.
On 4 January 1809, Louis Braille was born to a middle class family in a small town near Paris.
His father was a leatherer and Louis enjoyed playing in his workshop, imitating his Dad. This is exactly what he was doing at three years of age, when a horrific accident took place.
Louis had been squinting closely at a piece of leather he was trying to pierce with an awl. Pressing hard into this leather, the tool slipped and went straight into one of his eyes.
Now, this is only the nineteenth century and medicine (as we know it) wasn’t invented yet, so Louis was rushed to the local healer who bandaged it up until a surgeon could look at it the next day. But an infection set in, which soon spread to his other eye and by the age of five, he was blind.
Losing your sight is hard to comprehend at any age, and Louis, not really grasping the concept at such a young age, kept asking “why it was always dark?”.
In the 1800s, it was thought if you were blind, you were helpless – and a large proportion of people ended up begging for their livelihood.
Only those people who were born into very wealthy families were generally able to afford an education – and while Louis’ Dad had a successful leather business, with three other children to feed, purse strings were tight.
Although Louis parents were far from rich, they were determined that their son would have the same opportunities as their other kids, and he was sent to the local school where his only option was to learn through listening.
Luckily, when Louis was nine, a noblewomen heard of his story and was so moved she pleaded with the Royal Institute for the Blind school in Paris to take him on as a student. Soon after, good news was received – Louis had been accepted into the first school in the world for blind and visually impaired students.
The Royal Institute for the Blind may have been a world first, but the facilities were anything but state-of-the-art – the school was run from a damp, dark, dilapidated old jail.
Food was scarce, showers were only available once a month and there were lots of rules, enforced with harsh punishments.
But, for Louis it wasn’t all bad – he was able to learn a variety of new subjects (like grammar, music and science), and also was able to get hold of what he had wanted for so long – books.
At the Royal Institute for the Blind, Louis learned to read by tracing the pages of special books. The books were something of a letdown, though – the text was so big (so students could trace the letters with their fingers), and each sentence took up a whole page, which meant some seriously short stories. A far cry from Harry Potter!
It wasn’t enough for Louis to read, he also wanted to write! So, he set about getting his hands on an alphabet made from bits of thick leather. It was a slow and fiddly process, but he could at least trace the letters’ outlines and write his first sentences.
While paying a visit to Louis’ school, a retired French army captain, Charles Barbier, introduced the students to a system of writing – one he’d created to allow soldiers to communicate silently with each other without needing light (which would give them away to the enemy).
This system used a code made from dots and dashes that had been punched into heavy paper with a sharp tool (ironically similar to the awl Louis hurt his eye with).
While his method had never taken off in the army (soldiers found it too complicated), it gave Louis just the inspiration he needed.
Seeing this code as his ticket to finally being able to read and write, Louis fully embraced this new language, and set to work creating a better system.
Over a two year period, Louis worked hard on his new system, after many late nights, and at the tender age of 15, he finally cracked the code!
To put his new system to the test and show his school how it worked, he asked the headmaster to read out an article from a newspaper. As the words were read out, Louis recorded each word using his Braille system and then repeated it, word-for-word back to the headmaster – proving he’d been successful in creating a new reading and writing system for the blind.
By the time Louis was 19 years old, he was teaching full time at the Royal Institute for the Blind – but he still hadn’t convinced the school to introduce his new language system.
While the school’s director admired and respected Louis, he was worried that the braille system would allow blind students to become ‘too independent’, and no longer need their teachers.
Sadly, Louis died at just forty-three, after a long battle with a respiratory condition (believed to be tuberculosis). Just two years later in 1854, his language system was finally adopted by the Royal Institute for the Blind, thanks to overwhelming demand from students.
From there, braille spread through the rest of the word – and in 1878, the World Congress for the Blind voted to make it the international system for the blind. Now, Braille has now been taken up by almost every language worldwide.