Louis Braille was
born in a small town near Paris in 1809. One day when Louis Braille
was a small boy, he crept into his father's workshop to play. He had
often seen his father making shoes and he decided he would like to try.
He picked up an awl, a sharp, pointed tool used for making holes in
leather. As he bent over, the awl slipped and pierced his eye, destroying
it forever. Some time later his other eye became infected by the first
and he lost his sight altogether. He was aged only 4, but still went
on to become one of the most famous Frenchmen ever to live.
Louis Braille's school years
Despite his sight
loss the young child attended the village school with his sighted friends
for two years. Eventually it became clear that he would not be able
to learn much more, largely because he could not read or write. Without
an education it was likely that he would have to beg on the streets,
like other blind people at that time.
At the age of ten
he was lucky enough to be sent to a school for blind boys in Paris,
one of the first in the world. Conditions in the school were very harsh.
The building was damp and unhealthy and discipline was severe. Pupils
who misbehaved were beaten, locked up and given stale bread and water.
In fact, this kind of discipline was common in all schools at that time.
Life was harsh for nearly everyone and most sighted children left school
at the age of 12 and went to work in factories or in mines.
At the school in
Paris the blind pupils were taught practical skills like chair caning
and slipper making so that when they left the school they would be able
to make a living. Once a week, after lunch, the boys were taken for
a walk in the park, linked together by a long rope.
They were also
taught to read but not to write. The letters they read were raised above
the surface of the page so that they could feel them with their fingertips.
This form of writing was very difficult to read because it was very
hard to tell the letters apart. The letters were printed by pressing
copper wire into one side of the paper to make a raised shape on the
other. Because each individual letter had to be made out of wire first
and because the wire then had to be forced into the paper with a press
blind people were unable to write anything for themselves.
One day something
happened that changed the lives of blind people forever. In 1821, a
soldier named Charles Barbier visited Louis' school. He bought with
him a system he had invented called "night writing". Night
writing had originally been designed so that soldiers could pass instructions
along trenches at night without having to talk and give their positions
away. It consisted of twelve raised dots which could be combined to
represent different sounds. Unfortunately it proved to be too complex
for soldiers to master and was therefore rejected by the army.
How did he develop
The young Louis
Braille quickly realised how useful this system of raised dots could
be, provided it was simplified. Over the next few months he experimented
with different systems until he found an ideal system using six dots.
He continued to work on the scheme for several years after, developing
separate codes for maths and music. In 1827 the first book in braille
Even so, the new
system did not catch on immediately. Sighted people did not understand
how useful braille could be and one head teacher at the school even
banned the children from learning it. Fortunately this seemed to have
the effect of encouraging the children even more and they took to learning
it in secret. Eventually even sighted people began to realise the benefits
of the new system.
Not only could
people with sight problems read braille but they could also write it
for themselves using a simple stylus to make the dots. For the first
time blind and partially sighted people began to be truly independent
and to take control of their own lives.
What did he go
on to do?
Louis Braille eventually
became a teacher in the school where he had been a student. He was admired
and respected by his pupils but, unfortunately, he did not live to see
his system widely adopted. He had always been plagued by ill health
and in 1852, at the age of 43, he died from tuberculosis.
In France itself,
Louis Braille's achievement was finally recognised by the state. In
1952 his body was moved to Paris where it was buried in the Pantheon,
the home of France's national heroes.