Writing with six dots and its future
A brief overview
Colette Marsan, Editor of the review "Valentin Haüy"
Christian Coudert, IT project manager at Valentin Haüy Association
Louis Braille’s Birthplace
The village of Coupvray, some 40 kilometres east of Paris, between Lagny and Meaux, is a small rural community in a well preserved environment. In 1809 the Braille family were living in a house located on the edge of the village in “Chemin des Buttes”, since renamed “rue Louis Braille”. That was where Louis was born on the 4th January 1809 and lived until he was 10. He was to return home regularly throughout his life. Louis’ father was a saddlemaker by trade and it was in his workshop that Louis, aged 3, wounded an eye trying out one of his father’s tools. The infection that resulted soon spread to the other eye and LOUIS WAS BLIND BY THE AGE OF FIVE.
This house has been declared a listed building and is today the Louis Braille museum.
It is a house typical of the Brie region and has kept its authentic rustic peasant appearance. In the main room, the living room for a family including four children, each item conjures up the daily life at the time: the sink, the oven for baking bread, the cheese store, the hearth and the alcove with the bed in it. Upstairs, the one room contains various inventions linked to braille, including the first braille slates and a braille typewriter, and other objects directly related to the life and work of Louis Braille.
Louis Braille is totally blind by the age of five
In 1819, at the age of ten, he entered the Royal Institution for the Young Blind in Paris, which had been set up by Valentin Haüy in 1784 and was to become the National Institute for the Young Blind (INJA). Louis was an eager learner and even in his first year won all the first prizes, both manual and academic subjects. The following year, a former artillery captain, Charles Barbier de La Serre presented a system of phonetic reading to the Headmaster of the Institution. Louis soon tested it out and suggested improvements, which Barbier refused. Louis bade his time.
Eventually, he retained the idea of the raised dot from Barbier’s system as being more perceptible to the touch than a smooth line. Yet he dropped the use of sounds on the basis that an alphabetical system would favour education for the blind. As early as 1825, when Braille was a mere sixteen, the basis of his system had been worked out.
In 1829, the first version of his “Method for Writing the words, music and plainchant with dots for the use of the blind” was published. In the ensuing years he improved the code, which he tried out on his friends. The second edition of the Method appeared in 1837, without the lines. It defined all the characters of the alphabet, numbers, punctuation marks and contained a form of musical notation that is essentially still in use today on a worldwide scale. The braille system was born.
In the Royal Institution for the Young Blind, Louis was first a “blind tutor” and then a fully-fledged teacher from 1827. The subjects he taught were as varied as grammar, history, geography, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, the piano end the ’cello.
The braille system
Using the Barbier system’s 12 dots as a starting point, Braille devised a cell comprising only six dots, in two vertical rows of three. The presence or absence of these six dots in the six places of the matrix results in 64 possible combinations (including spaces). All the letters of the alphabet, accents, punctuation marks and numbers can thus be represented: from 6 dots in a vertical rectangle, 64 combinations can be obtained resulting in a comprehensive system of writing and reading.
Braille’s genius comes through in various ways in his invention:
· the blind are provided with an alphabetical system (Barbier’s was phonetic);
· the number of dots available to designate a single character is reduced to six, this being the maximum that the fingertip can grasp rapidly and globally;
· they are arranged in two columns of three: “one dot less in height and the number of combinations is insufficient; one more and 75% of the signs become too difficult to decipher”;
· they are arranged in a logical order that is easy to remember;
· through using the 64 possible combinations, all the signs required for the written expression of human thought are catered for.
By 1837, the year the revision of the “Method” was published, the embossed system devised by Louis Braille had already been in use for about 12 years. From then on, the use of braille was to spread continuously but a further 25 years had to pass before braille was officially adopted.
Louis Braille in the Panthéon
In 1835, at the age of 26, Louis Braille was suffering from tuberculosis and had his first lung illness. This disease worsened over the years, largely as a result of the dilapidated state of the Institution’s old premises in the rue St Victor. In 1847 a slight improvement in his state of health enabled him to resume teaching after a temporary halt.
In the evening of the 6th January 1852, he passed away at the age of 43 in the present building of the National Institute for the Young blind in boulevard des Invalides. Following his family’s wishes, he was buried in Coupvray, to which he had returned regularly throughout his life. Shortly afterwards, a subscription was launched in all the blind institutions in the world so as to offer the village a column worthy of the great man and on the 31st May 1887, a monument was erected on his tomb in Coupvray.
However, the government and all the groups of blind people wished to see Braille placed amongst the famed benefactors to humanity. His body was transferred to the Panthéon in Paris on the 22nd June 1952, while it was decided that the remains of his hands should remain on the tomb in Coupvray.
Not2: The Panthéon in Paris is a neo-classical building situated on the montagne Sainte-Genviève in the 5th district. Its pediment bears the inscription, “To great men the Nation is indebted”. At the present time, it is the President who decides upon a burial in the Panthéon.
Yet Louis Braille is still alive!
The surname Braille has now become a common-or-garden noun: it was in 1878 that writing with raised dots for the blind, hitherto called “anaglyptography”, took on the name of “braille writing” and very soon became universal.
Books came out for both adults and children.
Information technology, in conjunction with braille, enables reading, re-reading, writing, filing, teaching, communication from a sighted to a blind person and vice versa. This applies to all ages, from the very young child, born blind and taught to read braille with his fingers, to the senior citizen who can no longer use his eyes to read a printed text.
Despite the huge possibilities for communication opened up by Louis Braille and made available to a large number through IT and the internet, much progress remains to be made to arouse awareness and inform the public at large so as to achieve a greater understanding of the visually impaired and of braille, their writing.
Fortunately, things are moving on.
Louis Braille, child of the night,
is amongst the stars:
since 1992, an asteroid has borne his name.