Walnut Cove, North Carolina, United States
Morgantown, West Virginia, United States
Louis Braille (1809–1852), blinded and ultimately dying by “opportunity” … but not before inventing a wondrous gift to humanity. From De Tampon, 1925. Via Wikimedia. No known restrictions on publication.
“… as need, the mother of all inventions, taught them …”
— Thomas Hobbs, from Leviathan
Helen Keller is reputed to have said, “We the blind are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg.”1 The life of Louis Braille (1809–1852), complete with tragedies, trials, and ultimate triumph has been chronicled.2-4 Braille is primarily recognized for one thing: braille, the tool used by the blind to read. Indeed, braille, the process of using tactile sensation to read by raised dots, is not capitalized, having entered our lexicon as a noun. In short, Braille invented braille.
Jenkins, in The Untold Story of the Telegraph, identified four recipe ingredients for invention: technology, knowledge, motivation, and opportunity.5 These four ingredients are not sequential, nor even distinct. Braille’s invention is viewed through the lens of this invention recipe.
Braille was ten years old when he enrolled as a student at the Royal Institution for the Young Blind in Paris in 1819. He was quickly introduced to the technology of the day to facilitate reading by the blind. That technology consisted of allowing the blind to see by touch what sighted individuals saw with their eyes. The blind read by feeling embossed raised letters. This system was bulky, cumbersome, expensive, and slow, which limited literary vistas.
Charles Barbier, a French military officer, had devised a system of “night writing,” read by tactile sensation in the dark and utilizing a system of raised dots in two columns of six potential locations.6 Rejected by the army, Barbier took his idea to the school for the blind in 1821. Young Braille took that concept and developed it. By age fifteen, Braille had created a workable code that utilized a system of raised dots in two columns of three potential locations.
At age twenty, Braille published his code in 1829. In his preface, Braille wrote:
The ease with which one can learn and put into practice the ingenious procedure for writing with dots, invented by Mr. Barbier especially for the blind, would have been more than enough reason for us to dispense with publishing an alternative procedure, if we hadn’t felt the need for a writing system in which the signs take less room than those of Mr. Barbier, were of sufficient number to represent all the characters in ordinary writing, and could be applied to music and plainsong.7
Demonstrating humility and generosity, Braille added:
If we have made much of the advantages of our procedure over that of Mr. Barbier, we must say in his honor that it is to his procedure that we owe the germ of the idea of our own.7
Having just been educated on the latest technology for allowing the blind to read, Braille used that acquired knowledge to grasp the advantages of raised dots over the disadvantages of embossing.
As the opening quote alludes, necessity is the mother of invention. Who could be more motivated to develop an efficient and effective method of reading for the blind than a person who is blind? Braille’s motivation, however, was not self-benefit. Braille labored for the common good of all blind individuals. In his pamphlet, Braille always used “we” or “our” and never “I”. The title of Braille’s pamphlet is revealing: “for the use of the blind and made available to them.”7 Braille intended an unrestricted gift to the blind. In his pamphlet, Braille does not even disclose that he is blind.
Barbier, on March 1, 1833, acknowledged and emphasized that point in a letter to Braille:
I cannot praise too highly the kind feelings which prompt you to be useful to those who share your misfortune … much can be expected of the enlightened sentiments which guide you.4
Opportunity can be the result of tragedy. At age three, Braille blinded himself in his father’s harness workshop with a sharp instrument. A young priest, Jacques Palluy, recognized Braille’s intelligence and asked the new schoolteacher in the village of Coupvray to accept him as a student. Antoine Becheret also quickly recognized that Braille was an exceptionally gifted child. Becheret knew of the Paris school for the blind founded by Valentin Haüy. Braille was accepted and given a scholarship to attend. His fellow blind students were a necessary opportunity element. Not content that he himself could use his invention, Braille needed to be confident that other blind individuals could learn and use his code. That school (crowded, damp, and unhygienic) provided a unique opportunity for Braille, but contributed to his early death from tuberculosis.
Braille died unknown in 1852 and was buried in a village cemetery in Coupvray. His invention had yet to be recognized in his country or the world. In 1952, Braille’s remains (except for his hands) were disinterred and reburied with international acclaim and ceremony at the Panthéon, a final resting place for many heroes of France. Braille’s invention was a wondrous gift to humanity while the recipe was personally punishing.
- Library of Congress. (https://www.loc.gov/wiseguide/dec09/dots.html).
- Roblin J (translated Mandalian RG). The Reading Fingers, Life of Louis Braille, 1809-1852. New York: American Foundation for the Blind, 1952.
- Bickel L. Triumph Over Darkness, The Life of Louis Braille. North Sydney: Allen & Unwin Australia, 1988.
- Mellor CM. Louis Braille, A Touch of Genius. Boston: National Braille Press, 2006.
- Jenkins JD. The Untold Story of the Telegraph, 2nd ed. Bellingham, WA: SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention, 2018.
- Sakula A. That the blind may read: the legacy of Valentin Haüy, Charles Barbier, Louis Braille and William Moon. J Med Biogr 1998; 6: 21-27.
- Braille L. Procedure for writing words, music and plain-song using dots for the use of the blind and made available to them. Paris: Royal Institution of Blind Youth, 1829. https://nfb.org//images/nfb/publications/braille/thefirstpublicationofthebraillecode.html.
LAUREN E. HILL, M.Ed., is a teacher and guidance counselor.
JACK E. RIGGS, M.D., is a professor of neurology at West Virginia University.