January 5, 2018
Little 3-year-old Louis ran into his father’s workshop attached to the house. Simon-René was a master craftsman known across the region for his skillful work making leather reins, harnesses, saddles and other horse tack. While he tended to a customer, Louis busied himself with a piece of leather and an awl. Trying to penetrate the hard material with the sharp instrument, Louis’ hand slipped and the awl pierced his eye. His screams brought the family running to his side, but his fate was sealed. Despite doctors’ best efforts, infection contaminated both of Louis’ eyes, rendering him completely blind within two years. Louis Braille would never see again, at least not with his eyes.
The fourth child of Simon-René and Monique Braille, Louis joined his siblings on January 4, 1809, in the small village of Coupvray, France, located less than thirty miles east of Paris. Louis was an inquisitive and bright child, traits his parents wanted to nurture. After the accident, Simon carved him a walking stick. A local priest, Abbé Palluy, educating him in science, using his other senses to experience nature through sound and smell. Most importantly, Palluy instructed him about God. However, Louis wanted to attend the village school with the other children. One of Louis’ friends agreed to lead him to school, where Louis memorized the teacher’s lessons through just listening, becoming the class’ best student.
Louis’ father contributed to his education as he embedded upholstery nails in wood strips in the shape of letters. He taught Louis the alphabet by running his fingers over those nails to feel the letters. Simon also taught him to write by guiding his hand and performing the motions. This routine continued for three years before everyone realized Louis learned all he could at the village school. He needed more specialized education for those in his condition.
At the time, most blind individuals did not receive an education or training in a trade unless they were from wealthy families. Simon was well known and well respected, but not well funded. Blind individuals who couldn’t find work as a sideshow act usually ended up begging.
One such sideshow was witnessed by Valentin Haüy in 1771 in Paris. Donning dunce hats, ridiculous dresses, and gigantic cardboard glasses, ten blind people ground away on string instruments as the audience scorned and mocked them. The event deeply moved Haüy, and stayed with him.
Years later he witnessed François Leseuer, a young blind boy, begging near a Paris church. After giving him a few coins, Haüy marveled how Leseuer examined the raised markings with his fingers, which sparked an idea in Haüy. After assuming responsibility for Leseuer’s care, Haüy designed wooden blocked containing carved letters and numbers. He used them to teach Leseuer to read and start down the road which he would devote his life.
Haüy fashioned a method of raised letters blind individuals could read with their fingers. In 1784, he opened a school for the blind, where students lived, learned, and labored. It was the world’s first school of its kind, with Leseuer as one of its first teachers. Haüy’s produced several books using his method, fourteen of which made up the school library. They were large, cumbersome, slow to read and few in quantity, yet the students eagerly consumed them. On December 26, 1786, Haüy and his pupils visited the royal palace in Versailles to display their reading skills, impressing King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. After the event, the school adopted the name Institution Royale des Juenes Aveugles (Royal Institute for Blind Youth).
The following decade, the new government resulting from the French Revolution took over Haüy’s school and forced him out. (see Storming The Bastille and Reign Of Terror) Haüy left for St. Petersburg, Russia, where he started another blind school with more opening throughout Europe. It wasn’t until 1817 until Haüy saw Paris again.
A year later, Abbé Palluy discovered the unique Paris blind school where Louis could study geography, history, science, grammar, arithmetic, music and learn a skill. The Braille’s knew Louis would greatly benefit from the Royal Institution for Blind Youth. Unable to afford it on their own, a full scholarship to the school was arranged for Louis. Six weeks after his tenth birthday, Louis traveled with his father to Paris where Louis took to his studies immediately. Attracted especially to music, he quickly took up piano, cello, and organ.
Dr. Pignier, the new director of the school, discovered the former director had ostracized Valentin Haüy, not allowing him to visit the school upon his return to Paris. Therefore, in the summer of 1821, Pignier and the children planned a special celebration for Mr. Haüy. Deeply moved by the event, Haüy informed the participants, “It is God who has done everything.” All were saddened by Haüy's death seven months later, however the program had a much longer-lasting impact on 12-year-0ld Louis.
Around the same time, another major influence entered Louis’ life. Army captain Charles Barbier visited the institute to share his communication system with the students. He developed a series of raised dots and dashes on thin cardboard, which he called “night writing” where soldiers could communicate silently and in the dark. However, the soldiers deemed it too complex with too many codes to memorize. Not wanting his work to be wasted, he modified based on sounds for the blind to use, now calling it Sonography. Unfortunately, the students also considered it confusing, plus it lacked grammatical and numerical symbols. Regardless, Louis found it fascinating and immediately began working on his own raised system.
Louis’ first methods resembled his father’s teaching techniques. Using figures cut from leather and tacks placed on boards, he eventually settled on a raised dot system of which he accomplished with an awl-like tool. Little did he know he was going to change the world with the same tool that changed his life. He worked on his system for three years, unveiling it at age 15. Before long, Louis devised a stylus instrument and metal template that allowed the students to write their own documents such as class notes and assignments. While still a student, Louis took a job playing organ at a local church the following year, an occupation the devout Catholic would continue for most his life. His love for music inspired Louis to modify his system to music. In 1829, at the young age of 20, Louis published Method of Writing Words, Music and Plainsong by Means of Dots for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them.
Dr. Pignier supported and assisted Louis in his efforts to help blind people across the globe. However, sighted teachers could not see past their own careers. Terrified their students would not need to rely on them as much with this new system, they bulked at it, hindering its advancement for decades. Seeing its importance and Louis’ brilliance, Pignier offered him a tutoring job in 1826. Two years later, Louis was promoted to full-time teacher, a position Louis held for the rest of his life. The institute compensated him with a small salary, along with free room and board. Louis also expanded his education at the College of France.
Students loved Louis and praised him often. As one pupil wrote: “He carried out his duties with so much charm and wisdom that the obligation of attending class was transformed into a real pleasure for his pupils. They competed not only to equal and surpass each other, but also in a touching and constant effort to please a teacher whom they admired as a superior and liked as a wise and well-informed friend, ready with sound advice.”
Louis realized sighted people would not take the time to learn his system. Wanting his pupils to have a wider reading audience, he modified his 6-dot system, using many more dots to produce raised letters sighted people could read and blind people could feel. Louis termed it Raphigraphy, and the students loved it, using it to write home to their families. However, it took much longer to produce a written letter with the new system.
A mechanically minded friend, Pierre Foucault, who became blind at age six, offered a solution. He created a machine where pushed levers produced both an inked image above its raised outline on a piece of paper. Called the Keyboard Printer, it was among the first ever typewriters.
The damp, dark and otherwise poor living conditions at the institute resulted in many students suffering from health issues. By age 26, Louis had contracted tuberculosis. He continued to work, vacationing often in Coupvray for the fresh air. Demonstrations of his system were well received, with King Louis Philippe praising it following the Paris Exposition of Industry in 1834. Nevertheless, sighted teachers continued to greatly limit its acceptance in schools, continuing with Haüy’s original raised letter method instead.
An unmarried man with living costs covered, Louis could have used his meager salary to make life very comfortable for himself. Instead, he treated himself only to necessities, using the balance to help the poorer students. He purchased books and proper braille writing materials, paying poorer pupils to copy the books into braille, which he would then give to others.
In 1844, his health condition forced him to take a sabbatical from teaching, returning to the classroom in 1847 after an improvement. By this time, braille had saturated all of the institute’s disciplines, including chapel and music classes. Three years later, Louis’ health again deteriorated so he requested retirement. Knowing Louis lacked the funds to live off of, the current director continued his teacher status, instructing piano lessons when able.
By December of 1851, Louis’ health crumbled, however, his spirits never suffered. He told his friend, “Yesterday was one of the greatest and most beautiful days of my life… I tasted the greatest joys. God was pleased to hold before my eyes the dazzling splendors of eternal hope. After that, doesn’t it seem that nothing more could keep me bound to the earth?” Louis turned forty-three two days before seeing the “splendors of eternal hope” on January 6, 1852.
Following his death, friends discovered a small box in his room inscribed, “To be burned without opening.” Unable to restrain their curiosity, they opened the box. Out spilled hundreds of I.O.U.s from students whom Louis had loaned money too. The friends quickly collected the notes and burned it all as per Louis’ wishes.
Thanks to Royal Institute directors and teachers, their students were the primary beneficiaries of the braille system until the point. That all changed two years after Louis’ death, when France recognized it as the approved system for the blind, followed by a world congress in 1878. Several European countries adopted it in 1890 with America following suit in 1917. In 1949, world leaders in the United Nations began the transition of translating braille into over two hundred languages, making it the universal system for the blind worldwide.
Liberty, this story shows how innovation begets innovation. It is the butterfly effect. One idea influences another which incites another, and so on. While we celebrate Louis Braille as the inventor of braille, it was the result of a series of events. A blind boy inspired Valentin Haüy to develop a raised letter system and his school allowed Louis Braille to meet Charles Barbier, who also had a raised system. Louis’ father contributed ideas for reading with your fingers and Louis prompted Pierre Foucault’s Keyboard Printer. All played a part in the development and promotion of braille.
On the other hand, when one is not allowed to create or share their inventions, then other possibilities are stifled as well. Once the government overtook Haüy’s school, decisions were not always made in the best interests of the students. The sighted teachers refused to see what the blind students saw all too clearly, a wonderful new method that was easier to use and opened the world to them. Instead, the teachers insisted on using Hauy’s method, though revolutionary, was cumbersome, limited, and ultimately kept the children dependent. Royal Institute administrators even dismissed Dr. Pignier because he dared to have a history book rewritten in braille.
In this story, Louis was the one with the vision while the sighted teachers selfishly wanted to keep the pupils on a dark, dreay path. They were truly the blind ones. Jesus warns us about this in Matt 15:4, “Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” He was referring to the Jewish leaders and their spiritual blindness, yet the statement still holds. Everything Louis did was to help those less fortunate than him and his pupils admired him for it. Plus, he didn’t need a government telling him to do it. His knowledge and love of God inspired him to do it on his own, regardless of his physical condition, giving him a spiritual vision we should all strive for.
That’s my 2 cents.