Louis Braille (1809-1852)

     Louis Braille was born on January 4, 1809 in Coupvray, France. The son of a harness-maker, Braille was blinded by an accident in his fathers workshop when he was three. Educated at the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris from the age of 10, Braille developed a raised-dot code that enabled blind people to read and write. Although his system was in limited use during his lifetime, it has since been accepted globally. Louis Braille died in 1852.

Early Life and Education

     Louis Braille was the fourth child of Simon-René and Monique Braille. Simon-René Braille made harnesses, saddles and other horse tack.

     When Louis was three years old, he injured one of his eyes with an awl (a sharp tool used to make holes in leather) in his fathers workshop. Both of his eyes eventually became infected, and by the time he was five, he was completely blind.

     Although there were few options for blind people at that time, Braille's parents wanted their son to be educated. He attended school in their village and learned by listening. An attentive student, when he was 10 years old, he received a scholarship to attend the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris.

     The National Institute was the first school of its kind, founded by Valentin Haüy to educate blind students. At the school, Louis learned both academic and vocational skills. He also met Charles Barbier, who while serving in the French army, invented a code that used different combinations of 12 raised dots to represent different sounds. Barbier called the system sonography. Those who could not see would decode the dots by touching them. Its purpose had been for soldiers to communicate silently at night, but since it failed as a military tool, Barbier thought the system might be useful for blind individuals.

Educator and Inventor

     Louis Braille was one of many people at the school who found Barbier’s system promising; but he also discovered its shortcomings. It was quite complex (soldiers had had difficulty learning it) and it was based on sounds rather than letters. Braille spent several years in his early teens developing a much simpler system. His system had only six dots, three dots lined up in each of two columns. He assigned different combinations of dots to different letters and punctuation marks, with a total of 64 symbols.

     In 1829, Louis Braille published ‘Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them’. He became an apprentice teacher at the National Institute for Blind Youth when he was 19, and then a teacher when he was 24. In 1837, the school published the first book in braille. However, Braille’s system proved to be controversial at the institute. The school’s director, Alexandre François-René Pignier, had supported using braille, but Pierre-Armand Dufau banned it when he became director of the school in 1840. Nonetheless, by 1850, when tuberculosis forced Louis Braille to retire from teaching, his six-dot method was well on its way to widespread acceptance.

     Louis Braille died of his illness on January 6, 1852, in Paris, France, at the age of 43 and he was buried in his home village of Coupvray.  On June 20th, 1952, Louis Braille’s remains were disinterred and taken to Paris to be deposited with honor in the Pantheon. The bones of Braille’s hands, however, were separated and kept in a concrete box atop his empty tomb at Coupvray as an honor to his origins in this humble village.

All images on this page were created by John Kelly in April 2017.  © John J Kelly Vision Consulting, LLC.   Please reference accordingly in any citations.

© 2020 John J Kelly Vision Consulting, LLC

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