Louis Braille was born in 1809 in the village of Coupvray, about 20 miles from Paris. His father, Simon was a saddler.
Louis was very interested in his father’s trade, and fascinated by the rows of knives laid out in the work-shop. One day finding the door open and the room empty, he began to shave pieces of leather as he had seen his father do when making saddle fringes. The knife was razor-sharp and it slipped and plunged into Louis’ eye. Nothing that either his parents or the local doctor could do to halt the tragic course of events. A few months later the other eye became infected and total blindness soon closed over Louis Braille.
When he reached school age his parent entrusted Louis to the village school-master. At six years old he was far in advance of others of his age. It was only when reading and writing was taught that he became a rebellious scholar because he could not participate.
It was his father who taught Louis how to read by touch. Simon took large brass nails from his workshop and drove them into blocks of wood in the shape of each letter of the alphabet, around which he would run his fingers. Now he knew in his mind what his teacher was talking about. He could remember words spelt out and go home to find them by the aid of his blocks.
In 1819 to the great joy of the Braille family a letter was received from the Principal of the Institute for Blind Children. The Board of Governors had granted Louis a scholarship. On the morning of the 13th of February he left for Paris on the coach accompanied by the Parish Priest.
Soon his alert mind became apparent to the teachers who remarked on the boy’s fertile imagination, always tempered by reason. He progressed rapidly and eventually joined his school as a teacher of geography and algebra, and those who studied under him found his classes more of a pleasure to be enjoyed than a duty to be performed.
The remarkable feature of Braille’s invention was its very simplicity. He used just six dots like the six dominoes. Their combinations and applications were to represent not only the letters of the alphabet, but many other signs and symbols. By placing his fingers on a page a blind person could read by taking note of the number and position of the raised dots. Even a child could learn to read “Braille”, and once having mastered the alphabet, any person could learn to read with ease.
Louis didn’t just stumble on his system. He began by trying to use that of a retired artillery officer, Captain Charles Barbier who thought that “night writing” – then used by troops in the front line – could be adapted for the education of the blind. For instance, the phrase “we are encircled could be indicated by the shape of a circle. Barbier himself first tried to adapt this to a blind man’s script, but his system lacked punctuation, ignored individual letters and represented only sound.
Ceaselessly, Louis worked on improving Barbier’s idea. His first adaptations of the dot system were designed for writing his beloved organ music. After two years of punching holes into reams of paper he succeeded in creating the simplest symbolic writing.
Enthusiastically he offered his invention to the Director of the Institute, who refused to accept it. However Louis began to teach his alphabet to his pupils who avidly adopted it and used it so successfully that eventually the Board of Governors was forced to acknowledge its existence and use.
On the 22nd of February, 1844 in his speech at the opening of the new Institute for Blind Children the Vice Principal fully described the raised dot system of writing and paid tribute to the talents of its inventor. Louis Braille had triumphed. This was the just reward of twenty years’ struggle and endeavour. His system, besides opening new worlds of literature to the blind, became the basis of musical notation, mathematical and science code, and Braille shorthand.
Louis wrote, to other countries and Institutes offering an explanation of his new system of writing. There was no response. His system, rejected out-right, was not accepted outside France until the 1860′s, some years after his death.
Even these setbacks could not dishearten Louis. Undaunted, he carried on but soon, to all his other disappointments and personal tragedy, illness was added. He contracted Tuberculosis, suffered a haemorrhage and though apparently restored to health, remained a very sick man. No one was present when he died, at the age of 43, in his simple little attic room. It was only the next day that his landlady realising that she had not heard his cough, discovered him. It was the 6th of January, 1852.
No one would have been more shocked and surprised by the fame which now surrounds his name than Louis Braille himself. He received no official award and his friends saw him refuse the Legion of Honour solicited on his behalf. Today his work is all-embracing for it has been adapted to the needs of Oriental and Slavonic languages, African dialects and the complexities of the Chinese ideogram.
Another 100 years were to elapse before even the French were prepared to pay homage to Braille. It was not until 1952 that his remains were exhumed from their simple grave in the village churchyard of Coupvray and transferred to the Pantheon, France’s shrine for her most famous and noble citizenry.
Only his hands, whose touch had brought enlightenment to those who cannot see, were kept as a sacred symbol in an urn in the now empty grave at Coupvray.
As the plaque affixed to his birthplace so eloquently records
“He Opened the Doors of Knowledge to All Those Who Could Not See!”