Louis Braille is the inventor of a universal writing system that transformed blind education.
In the summer of 1812, aged just three-years-old, he sat beside his father, a saddler who had his own workshop, trying to imitate the actions he saw his father make. In one hand, he held a leather strap and, with the other, he grasped a thin curved knife. He lost control, stabbing himself in the eye, which became infected and without the aid of antibiotics, spread to his other eye, leaving him completely blind.
In 1819, a local priest secured a place for him to attend the Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, the first school of its kind for blind children in the world. It’s founder, Valentin Hauy, had developed the only system at the time to teach blind people to read. This system embossed the shapes of typographic characters onto wet paper, producing letters that could be felt and recognised by the fingers. But because of the large size of the letters, books were big and bulky, slow to read and almost impossible to write.
Around a similar time, an army officer, Charles Barbier, with a background in cryptography, created an entirely different system, that embossed dots rather than lines. He wanted to find a way that military information could be written at night and read in the dark. Although his idea was never implemented by the military, he thought of another application for it. He took his samples, and slate and stylus (the tools he used to create them), to the Institute for Blind Youth.
By the age of fifteen, Braille invented the tactile writing system which uses his name today. He improved Barbier’s system by making two simple but elegant changes. The first replaced the sonographic system, which assigned dot formations to sounds rather than letters. The second reduced the 12-dot with a 6-dot cell, providing a cell size small enough for the fingers could read left to right without vertical exploration and big enough to allow 63 combinations of dots, which could include all the letters of the alphabet, punctuation, and mathematical and musical notation.
His childhood home, in a town called Coupvray 25 miles east of Paris, is now a museum with a replica of his father’s workshop. But his true legacy is the millions of blind children his system enabled to have an education.