Louis Braille: 5 Facts on the Inventor of the Braille System

January marks Braille Literacy Month, in honor of its inventor's birthday. Learn five facts about how Louis Braille revolutionized education for the blind.
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January marks Braille Literacy Month, in honor of its inventor's birthday. Learn five facts about how Louis Braille revolutionized education for the blind.

Born on January 4, 1809, Frenchman Louis Braille was only three years old when his life changed forever. Playing in his father's leather harness workshop, Braille accidentally poked himself in the eye with a sharp tool that led to an infection. Eventually the infection spread to his other eye and left him completely blind. 

Being an incredibly bright student, Braille received a scholarship to the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris at age 10. From there, his future was set on a course for higher learning and great accomplishments that would change the world for the blind. Here are five facts about his journey to making a difference.  

Louis Braille Bust Photo

A bust of Louis Braille, by Étienne Leroux.

1. Before Braille, there was Valentin Haüy's system.

Braille's education at the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris was thanks to founder Valentin Haüy, a philanthropist who made it his mission to help the blind. Haüy created a system in which imprints of Latin letters were raised and embossed on heavy paper. Students would trace their fingers over the letters to read. Although the system helped Braille and his fellow students to comprehend text, it was a tedious and slow process. In addition, the cost to manufacture such books was a considerable expense, thus Haüy's library was quite small and limited in its informational scope. But still, the system inspired Braille to begin devising a system that used tactile code. 

2. But then a French army captain gave Braille an even better idea...

Retired French army captain Charles Barbier originally created his system, which he termed Sonography, to aid his fellow men in arms to write and read messages without using light. The system used 12-dot cells to represent sounds of words rather than their actual spelling, but the soldiers found it difficult to use and never caught on. Thus, Barbier decided his system might find use educating the blind and introduced it to Braille's school. 

3. It only took 3 years, but Braille got his system up and running. 

By the time he turned 15, Braille combined his knowledge of Haüy and Barbier's systems and created his own in 1824: the system was simply known as Braille. Instead of the 12-dot cell, the industrious student created a more efficient six-dot cell that represented letters, which students could identify with a single touch. For writing, he used an awl — the same sharp tool that blinded him — along with a metal plate laid on top of a slate that would allow students to write in straight lines. He published his revolutionary communication system in 1829 and presented his alphabet dot system at the Exhibition of Industry in Paris in 1834 in front of the French king. Sadly for Braille, the king did not immediately recognize his system as the official standard for writing for the blind.    

4. Braille's system extended to math and music.

While he was continuously improving his system, Braille also found time to create symbols for both math and music. An accomplished pianist and by now, a respected instructor at the institute, he created code for blind musicians to read and write music. In 1829 he published the Method of Writing Words, Music and Plain Song By Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged by Them. In his later years, he also would produce math text books for students.

5. The Braille system was approved only after his death.

Although Braille continued innovating to help blind students, he never got the recognition he deserved while he was alive. Braille died of (what is believed to be) tuberculosis in 1852, two days after he turned 43 years old. Two years later, the French government officially approved his dot system as the standard for reading and writing for the blind. In 1878 it was recognized worldwide and has since then, been adapted in almost every existing language.