Louis Braille born on January 4, 1809, certainly wasn’t your average teenager. Blind from the age of four, he was only fifteen when in 1824 he invented a reading system that converted printed words into columns of raised dots. Through touch, Braille opened the world of books to the sightless, and almost two hundred years later, no one has ever improved upon his simple, brilliant idea.
Louis Brailles father, a harness-maker, ran a workshop. One day he tried to punch a hole in a piece of leather with his father’s awl. The tool slipped, piercing the child’s eye. In the weeks that followed an infection set in. Miraculously, in those days before antibiotics, Louis Braille survived the infection, but it left him totally blind.
Louis’s parents were convinced that their bright little boy was capable of much more, if only he were given a chance to learn. At last his parents learned of a school in Paris where blind boys could study and learn a trade.
In 1821 an army captain named Charles Barbier approached the director of the school with an exciting new idea. Barbier had developed a system for reading by touch which he called “night writing.” He created the system as a means for soldiers to read messages in the dark, without alerting the enemy to their whereabouts by lighting a lantern. He suggested that his night writing might prove useful to the blind.
Eagerly the students at the Royal Institute experimented with Barbier’s system. Most of the boys lost interest in Barbier’s night writing, but twelve-year-old Louis thought it had possibilities. In every spare moment he worked to improve the code, sometimes staying up late at night although the morning bell sounded at six. He abandoned Barbier’s dashes and streamlined the system based on six dots in two vertical rows.
By the time he was fifteen, Louis Braille had perfected his writing system. The code which came to bear his name could be used for music and mathematics as well as text. It had symbols for capitalization and all of the punctuation marks. The students at the Royal Institute were enthusiastic about the Braille system, but some of the teachers regarded it with suspicion. Braille looked nothing like print, and the sighted teachers were reluctant to learn it. The Braille system finally became the school’s standard reading mode in 1844.
Louis Braille was a gifted musician as well as a man of inventive genius. He studied piano and organ at the Institute, and in 1825 he took a paying job as organist in a Paris church. The following year he began to tutor younger blind students, and when he was nineteen he was appointed to serve as a full-time teacher at the Institute. He worked at the school for the rest of his life, teaching geography, French grammar, music, and mathematics. He room and board at the school in addition to a small salary.
For thousands of years, the ability of blind people to participate fully in social, political, and cultural life was limited by the lack of access to written or printed forms of information. Although the work of many others contributed to his accomplishment, Louis Braille’s invention of a tactile six-dot reading and writing system revolutionized the way blind people perceived and contributed to the world. Louis Braille, a prodigious blind boy who grew up to innovate a form of communication that transformed the world for those unable to see.