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One day in 1812, in the commune of Coupvray, near Paris, France, Louis Braille was playing in his father’s workshop, which made harnesses for horses.
At the age of three, it was not uncommon for him to be attracted to carpentry tools and, mimicking what he had seen, picked up one of the sharp tools to “play daddy”.
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It might not be the first time he’s done this, and he’s probably been told not to – but at that age, you don’t measure the consequences.
And then an accident happened that would forever change his life and, a few years later, that of many other people.
As he was trying to make a hole in the leather, the awl slipped out of his hands and pierced his eye.
The eye became infected and the infection not only progressed but spread to the other eye.
At age five, Louis Braille is completely blind.
Although the local school does not offer a special program for the visually impaired, his parents are convinced that they should not deny him the opportunity to study. They enroll him, and at age 7, Braille begins to attend school.
As most of the teaching was done orally, he proved to be a good student. But, not knowing how to read or write, he was always at a disadvantage.
Eventually, the best thing that could have happened to him happened: he got a scholarship to study at the National Institute for Blind Youth (RIJC) in Paris.
on the way to Paris
Louis Braille arrives in the French capital and the RIJC at the age of 10.
At that time, the reading system used even at the institute was very rudimentary: the few books that existed were printed with raised letters, a system invented by the school’s founder, Valentin Haüy.
This meant that students had to slowly run their fingers over each letter from start to finish to form words and, after much effort, sentences.
In 1821, Charles Barbier, a captain in the French army, came to the institute to share a tactile reading system developed so soldiers could read messages on the battlefield in the dark without alerting the enemy with torches.
He realized that his “night writing,” as he called it, could benefit the blind.
Dots and lines instead of letters
Instead of using raised letters, night writing used raised dots and dashes.
Students tried it, but soon lost interest, because not only did the system lack capitalization or punctuation, but words were spelled as they were pronounced, not in standard French spelling.
Louis Braille, however, persists.
He took the code as his foundation and continued to improve it.
Three years later, at age 15, he completed his new system.
The first version of his new writing system was published in 1829.
What he did was simplify Barbier’s system by reducing the raised dots.
The idea was to give them the right size so that they could be touched with a fingertip at once.
To create the raised dots on the sheet of paper, he used an awl, the same sharp tool that caused his blindness.
And to ensure the lines are straight and legible, he used a flat grid.
As Braille loved music, he also invented a system for writing notes.
The time has passed…
The medical world was too conservative and slow to adopt Louis Braille’s innovation.
So much so that he died two years before we finally started teaching his system at the institute where he had studied.
He died of tuberculosis at age 43.
Over time, the system began to be used throughout the French-speaking world. By 1882 it was already in use in Europe. In 1916 it reached North America and then the rest of the world.
An adaptable system
The braille system has changed the lives of many blind people around the world.
It is read from left to right like other European scripts, and it is not a language: it is a writing system, which means that it can be adapted to different languages.
Braille codes were also developed for mathematical and scientific formulas.
However, with the advent of new technologies, particularly computer screen readers, literacy rates in this system are on the decline.
In 1952, in honor of his legacy, Louis Braille’s remains were unearthed and transferred to the Pantheon in Paris, where the tombs of some of France’s most famous intellectual leaders are located.
However, Coupvray, his hometown, insisted on keeping his hands, which are buried in a simple urn in the churchyard.
NASA, the American space agency, in turn, named a rare type asteroid “9969 Braille”, an eternal tribute to a great human being.
*This article is based on the BBC Ideas video titled “The Incredible Story of the Boy Who Invented Braille”.