The marvellous history of how a language written for the blind appeared and spread throughout the world rests on the shoulders of four Frenchmen, in different ways, of whom the first two, Valentin Haüy and Nicolas Barbier de La Serre, were sighted. They were both born in the Age of Enlightenment and were the precursors of what was to become Louis Braille’s brilliant invention of the raised-dot alphabet at the start of the 19th Century. Louis Braille, a blind young man, was a mere 16 years of age at the time. The fourth protagonist in this enthralling tale was another blind man, Maurice de La Sizeranne, who strove tirelessly to improve the braille code and to make it known in France and through Europe.
First teacher of the blind
Valentin Haüy was born in Saint-Just-en Chaussée, a village in the south of Picardy, on 13th November 1745 into a well-off family of weavers. He studied in Paris, where he acquired a sound knowledge of Latin, Greek, Hebrew and a dozen modern languages. His contemporaries readily deplored the miseries of humanity: Jean-Jacques Rousseau brought sensibility into fashion. Diderot caught the attention of the public at large and the literati of his time when he published a « letter on the blind for the use of those that see ». Valentin Haüy was a man of his time: he first became interested in the deaf-and-dumb and the work of the Abbot de l’Epée who was starting to obtain satisfying results in the school he had just set up. He turned his attention to the lot of the blind after an emotional shock he felt at St Ovid’s Fair (1771), when he witnessed a wretched show using ten blind so-called musicians begging. That is when Valentin Haüy decided to set up a school for the blind on the model of Abbot de l’Epée’s one for the deaf-and-dumb.
Initially he envisaged embossing letters of the standard alphabet so as to make them sensitive to the touch and had type made of enlarged, embossed, moveable characters on cardboard. In 1784, he started teaching a young blind boy and his success was such that he submitted a « Scheme of Education for the Use of the Blind » to the Philanthropic Society, created in 1780, which took in twelve blind pupils. In 1785, he was entrusted with teaching them: thus the « Institution for Blind Children » came into being.
Valentin Haüy, « the first teacher of the blind », headed his school until February 1802. The school was nationalised by the Representative Assembly in 1791, then attached to Hospice of the « Quinze-Vingts » in 1800. The school regained its independence under the Restoration, in 1815, going by the name of « Royal Institution for the Young Blind » before becoming the « National Institute for the Young Blind » (INJA).
Pursuing his vocation as a teacher of blind children, he opened a private school, the « Museum of the Blind » in Paris in 1803.
His reputation having crossed frontiers, Alexander I, Tsar of Russia, informed him that he wanted him to travel to St Petersburg with a view to setting up a school for the young blind. Valentin Haüy went there in 1806 and stayed for eleven years as head of the school he created.
He returned to Paris in 1817 and died there on the 19th March 1822, aged 77.
Nicolas Marie Charles Barbier de La Serre was born in Valenciennes on the 18th May 1767. His father, comptroller of the King’s Farms, arranged for him to enter a Military Academy in 1782, where he graduated as an artillery officer. When the Revolution broke out, he emigrated to America, where he worked as a land surveyor.
After returning to France, he grew interested in rapid secret writing codes. In 1808, he published an « Expediography Table » and, the following year, the « Principles of expeditive in the French language to write as fast as speech ». In this 1809 treatise, there is no question of blind people, but of the way to use a pen-knife to carve a simplified script, that can be read in the dark and decoded with the fingertips, hence of use to officers on a campaign wishing to write or read coded messages in the dark. This system was called « night writing » and went through various modifications.
It was not until 1819 that, at the Museum of Industry in Paris during a display of his techniques and of a machine he had invented, Charles Barbier de La Serre grasped the benefits that the blind could draw from his system. At the time the blind still learnt to read with the method elaborated by Valentin Haüy in 1784, using standard script enlarged and embossed and could only write by typesetting like a typographer. He thus devised a new system for the use of the blind, which he presented to the Headmaster of the Royal Institution for the Young Blind. This system was adopted by the Institution and won over the enthusiasm of the pupils, particularly Louis Braille, who was then aged 12. However, the system proposed by Charles Barbier de La Serre, whilst being better adapted to the blind than the « Valentin Haüy » system, still contained a number of drawbacks: it only allowed a phonetic reading, it took no account of grammar, punctuation, or figures and remained relatively complex, based on counting dots and not the idea of a combination of dots that can form an « image » that can be « read » by touch.
Charles Barbier de La Serre did not wish to see his method evolve, or adopt suggestions coming from the pupils in the Institution, particularly from Louis Braille. He later took an interest in the deaf-and-dumb, and later still children in primary schools.
He died on the 29th April 1841.
A brilliant inventor
Louis Braille was born on 4th January 1809 in the village of Coupvray, in Seine-et-Marne, about 40 kilometres from Paris.
His father was a saddlemaker. At the age of three, he seriously wounded an eye while playing in his father’s workshop and eventually lost his sight.
Despite his handicap, he attended the village school, where he stood out for his intelligence and exceptional memory. His parents decided to send him to the Royal Institution for the Young Blind in Paris. He started there on the 15th February 1819, at the tender age of ten. At the time, the Royal Institution occupied a building, no longer standing, in the 5th District on the corner of rue des Ecoles and rue du Cardinal Lemoine. The premises were cramped, damp, poorly heated and unhealthy; it has been suggested that Louis Braille’s time spent there brought about the tuberculosis he was subsequently to die of.
Charles Barbier de La Serre presented his system of « night writing », which he had originally devised for use in the dark by the army, then « adapted » by its inventor for the use of the blind, to the Headmaster of the Royal Institution for the Young Blind in 1821. Louis Braille, who was then only 12, jumped on it. He noted the drawbacks inherent in the system, although it was revolutionary compared with the previous method of embossed script that had been in use since 1784 when it was introduced by Valentin Haüy. Indeed the Barbier system relied on counting dots that represented sounds, with no representation of grammar or punctuation, and did not enable the writing of mathematics or music. Louis Braille was an assiduous student during the day. Thus it was that he devoted his nights and his summer holidays at Coupvray to his research and trials.
At the end of 1824, not yet aged 16, he put the finishing touches to his own alphabetical method. In 1828, at the age of 19, he was appointed teacher and put in charge of teaching general education and music.
He wrote a « Method for Writing the words, music and plainchant with dots for the use of the blind and arranged for them », which came out in 1829. « Braille » was born. His definitive version, such as has been used for over 170 years now, dates from 1837, the year when Louis Braille published the second edition of his work.
He was ill from the age of 26, suffering the first attacks of the tuberculosis that he was to die of. In 1840, he withdrew from teaching music.
He passed away on the 6th January 1852 in the building currently housing the National Institute for the Young Blind and was buried at Coupvray.
His ashes have lain in the Panthéon since 1952.
Maurice de la Sizeranne was born in Tain, a small village in la Drôme, on the left bank of the River Rhône, on the 30th July 1857.
He was nine when he lost his sight in an accident whilst playing.
He studied at the National Institute for the Young Blind, where he stood out for his musical talent. He was appointed music teacher there in 1878.
Also in 1878 an important International Congress was held for the Improvement of the situation of the blind and the deaf-and-dumb. It recognised the supremacy of braille for written French and launched a debate on unifying the practice of contracting braille. Maurice de la Sizeranne was fascinated by this problem and worked on a new abbreviated way of writing braille. In 1880 he gave up his career to devote himself to his opus: the French contracted spelling primer for braille, which was published two years later.
Having decided to devote himself fully to the cause of the blind, he soon realised that, despite the undeniable progress made in educating the young blind over the past century, once they left the school, they found themselves left to their own devices and were deprived of any information that might help them to take up a career.
He lost no time in launching a number of initiatives to remedy this state of affairs. He started by creating three periodicals: « Le Louis Braille » and « Le Valentin Haüy » in 1883, and « La revue braille » in 1884. Two years later he created a braille library consisting initially of his own personal collection, which was subsequently expanded to include a braille music library. He invited to his home celebrities likely to be interested in the condition of the blind – teachers from the Institute (INJA), inventors of apparatus and systems, headmasters of provincial or foreign institutions and so on. It was at one such meeting that the foundations were laid for the charity that was to become the Valentin Haüy Association. The Valentin Haüy Association was created on the 28th January 1889 and accorded charitable status on the 1st December 1891.
Thanks to his indefatigable commitment, his sense of organisation and numerous connections in the world of culture and welfare, in his full 28 years’ activity as Secretary-General of the Valentin Haüy Association, Maurice de La Sizeranne saw through an accomplishment whose fame in the world of the visually impaired was to spread way beyond it. After a stroke, he withdrew from his post in 1917 and retired to his native region. When he had partly recovered, he followed the Association’s evolution until his death on the 13th January 1924.