Few inventors have had such a positive impact on as many lives as Louis Braille, an eminent educator, innovator and advocate for the rights of the blind.
Braille was born about 20 miles east of Paris in Coupvray, France on January 4, 1809. As a three-year-old boy, Louis was playing on his father’s leather workbench with a sharp cobbler’s tool when he poked himself in the eye, causing severe damage. Like the great American humorist James Thurber, Braille became inflamed in the other eye and developed sympathetic ophthalmia, whereby both the physical injury of one eye and the “sympathetic” inflammation of the other caused him to lose his sight completely by the age of 5. .
At age 10, Braille received a scholarship in the prestigious, if meagerly funded, French Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris. He excelled in his classes and became an amazingly talented organist and cellist, as well as a kind mentor to younger students.
Braille first encountered the early predecessor of his tactile writing system in 1821 while he was still a teenager. Charles Barbier, a former French soldier, developed a code that soldiers could use to send and read messages in the dark and shared his method with the institute. Braille began to adapt this idea in his own improved version, eventually creating his own wonderful system of special jagged dot patterns embossed on thick pages of paper, where each character represented a letter in the alphabet, numbers, and other symbols.
In 1829 he published his landmark book A Method of Writing Words, Music, and Simple Songs by Points for Use by and Arrangement for the Blind, a musical code for blind musicians. He also wrote manuals for the blind on mathematics, geometric figures, maps, and musical symbols.
After graduating, Braille was asked to remain at the Royal Institution as an instructor, and by 1833 he was promoted to professor. But the Braille system was not officially adopted by the Royal Institution until 1854, two years after Braille’s death. The system soon became the method of choice among blind French speakers, and by the 1880s it had spread to virtually every school for the blind in the world. Today, Braille remains the primary form of communication, not only for book publishing, but also for computer terminals, in buildings, as well as for e-mail, mathematical and scientific notation.
Braille has never been a model of health. Tuberculosis developed in his youth, and, in a truly consumptive way, it spread to his lungs, which made the last 16 years of his life quite difficult. At 40, he had to retire. He died 170 years ago this week on January 6 at the age of 43 and was buried in the Pantheon along with many French heroes.
This avant-garde teacher offered edification and access to information and creativity to the visually impaired. Braille’s profile has been adorned with postage stamps, medals and coins, and his life story has been told in books, films, plays and songs. In a 1952 essay, the poet T. S. Eliot noted that “Perhaps the most enduring tribute to Louis Braille is the semi-conscious honor we give him by applying his name to a script he concocted…Thus, his memory is of greater reliability than the memory of many people more famous in their time.