THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: JANUARY 4, 1809

Louis Braille Born

louise-brailleThis week we celebrate World Braille Day and Louis Braille’s birthday.

Louis Braille created the first truly practical system of tactile symbols that allowed the blind, using their fingers, to read with the comprehension and speed of sighted people reading print. He built on the efforts of two sighted people: Valentin Haüy, a philanthropist and educator who produced books with embossed letters of the alphabet for his blind students, and Charles Barbier, a military officer who devised a code of raised dots for transmitting messages and orders in the dark. Barbier’s code used thirty-six phonetic symbols, each represented by a “cell” of two columns containing between one and six dots. The Braille code was unlike Haüy’s embossed letters (which were the same shape as the printed alphabet) or Barbier’s dots (which were phonetic). Using the sixty-three possible combinations of between one and six dots in a cell of two columns and three rows, the Braille code has a one-to-one correspondence with the letters of the alphabet and punctuation marks. The smaller cell size was readily read by touch, and one-to-one correspondence with letters of the alphabet allowed for easier written communication between blind and sighted people. Braille’s system became dominant in France shortly after his death and subsequently spread throughout the world.

Although Valentin Haüy was not the first to create a system for the blind to read by touch, no earlier attempt had ever been institutionalized. Braille’s exposure to Haüy’s method, and then
Barbier’s code, led him to create the first truly workable system for blind literacy. Readily understood by the blind and easily adaptable from French to other European languages, Braille was being used in the instruction of blind children in many western European countries by the end of the nineteenth century. The Braille code had a number of competitors (most based on principles derived from Braille) in the United States, and only in 1917 did it become the standard. In 1949, the government of India encouraged the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to regulate Braille for use in all languages, regardless of writing system.

Until the development of sound recording and the subsequent adoption of discs and tapes for distribution to the blind by libraries, Braille and similar codes provided the only access to reading material for the blind. Braille literacy reached a peak in the middle of the twentieth century. More recently, sound recordings and specialized computer programs have led to a decline in Braille usage and the claims by some that Braille code is obsolescent. Among the organized blind, though, there remains great support for teaching Braille to visually impaired children beginning at the same age as the sighted learn to read print. In 2009, to mark the bicentennial of Louis Braille’s birth, the U.S. Mint issued a commemorative one-dollar coin.

Morman, Edward T. “Louis Braille.” Great Lives from History: Inventors & Inventions. Hackensack: Salem, 2008. http://online.salempress.com.


Learn more about Louis Braille »

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