Calendar | Menus | Scholarships | Graduations

"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

3-year-old boy's injury leads to creation of new alphabet

By Paul Niemann

Send a link to a friend

[May 07, 2009]  Our story begins in 1812 in Paris, when an accident in his father's leather shop caused 3-year-old Louis to go blind. Louis' injury was originally thought to not be very serious, but then the injured eye became infected and the infection spread to his other eye. Before long, Louis was blind.

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 alphabet.

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 alphabet.

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.

[to top of second column]

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

(Other columns)

< Recent articles

Back to top


News | Sports | Business | Rural Review | Teaching & Learning | Home and Family | Tourism | Obituaries

Community | Perspectives | Law & Courts | Leisure Time | Spiritual Life | Health & Fitness | Teen Scene
Calendar | Letters to the Editor