In 1821, Louis Braille, a blind Frenchman, created a system that people with visual impairments, such as blindness, could use to read and write. Although Louis was not born blind, an early childhood accident eventually left him blind in both eyes.
At age 10, Louis won a scholarship to the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris, one of the first schools for the blind in the world. Louis, a smart and creative student, became a cellist and organist, despite the challenges of his visual impairment.
At the school, the blind children learned basic skills through mainly oral lessons. The students could also read a few books that were printed using a system of raised letters on paper developed by the school’s founder, Valentin Hauy. Valentin created the letters in the books by pressing shaped copper wire into paper.
While this system helped the students learn to read, they were still unable to write. Louis dreamed of creating a system that would allow people with visual impairments to read and write.
Braille was inspired to create his system when a former French army captain named Charles Barbier visited his school in 1821. Barbier talked about a system of writing he had developed called “night writing.”
Soldiers used night writing to send top-secret messages written in a code of raised dots and dashes on paper. Soldiers appreciated that night writing allowed them to communicate safely in darkness without having to speak or turn on a light to read the messages, which could have helped enemies find them.
Using the same sharp tool he had blinded himself with in childhood, Louis began adapting Barbier’s system for the blind. In braille, each letter of the alphabet is represented by a different pattern of raised dots.
Night writing used 12 dots, while Louis’ system only used six raised dots. This helped readers recognize letters using only one fingertip.
Louis Braille published the first braille book in 1829. By 1837, he had developed symbols for math and music, too. With the help of his friend, Pierre Foucault, Louis also developed a machine that made writing in braille faster and easier.
Louis eventually became a well-respected teacher at the Institute for Blind Youth. Sadly, the braille writing system was not adopted by the Institute during Louis’ lifetime.
He died on January 6, 1852, at the age of 43. France first recognized the braille system two years after his death. Today, the braille system is the standard form of reading and writing used by people with visual impairments around the world.