At age 10, Louis went to a
school for the blind in Paris. He was not satisfied with the books
that the school had for the blind students, though, as they
consisted of raised lettering like that used in the Braille
alphabet, but they literally spelled out every letter.
If a sighted person had to read one letter at a time with his
eyes, it would take a long time to read anything, so you can imagine
how long it would take a blind person to "read" one letter at a time
with his fingers. Louis knew there must be a way to improve upon
This one's no great mystery -- the hero of the story is Louis
Braille, the inventor of the Braille alphabet. What you might not
know, however, is the story of how he developed the Braille
There were at least 20 types of embossed alphabets available at
the time, in the early 1800s. The problem was that they were all
developed by people with normal vision but used by the blind. As a
result, they were ineffective.
Louis' first inspiration was probably his school's library books
-- or actually the lack of library books -- for the blind. After
reading all 14 of them, he knew there must be a way to increase the
number of books written for the blind.
In 1819, a French army officer named Charles Barbier created the
forerunner of the Braille alphabet. He used his 12-dot system of
raised lettering, called "night writing," to send messages to his
soldiers at night.
Barbier's night writing system of raised dots and dashes was
similar to Morse code, although Morse code wouldn't be invented for
another 25 years. They used this alphabet so they could understand
the messages without having to light a match, since a lit match
would reveal their location to the enemy.
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Louis Braille set out to improve upon Barbier's system. By 1824,
the 15-year-old had created the six-dot system of raised lettering
that's used today. It was an immediate hit with the other students
at his school, even though it was initially rejected by the school's
teachers. Louis Braille later became a teacher at this school -- the
same school for the blind that he attended as a student.
When he died in 1852, it looked like the Braille alphabet would
die with him, but a group of four blind men who founded the Royal
National Institute of the Blind kept his alphabet alive. The
institute is now the largest publisher of Braille in Europe.
Where did Louis Braille come up with the idea of "printing" the
dots in his new alphabet -- the one that bears his name?
The injury that caused Louis to go blind at age 3 occurred when
he slipped in his father's leather shop and was poked in the eye by
an awl. An awl is a tool with a very sharp point at the end of it,
and it is used to punch holes in leather. When he developed his
Braille alphabet, he used an awl to poke the paper from underneath
in order to create Braille dots above the paper.
Louis Braille used the object that caused him to go blind to
create a whole new alphabet, enabling other blind people to read.
Paul Niemann's column has appeared in
more than 75 newspapers and counting. He is the author of the
"Invention Mysteries" series of books and can be reached at
Copyright Paul Niemann 2009