Today’s entry is about a turning point in learning and communication.
Inventor and teacher (1809-1852)
He was the son of a harness maker of the village of Coupvray, outside Paris. At the age of 3, while playing in his father’s workshop, he drove an awl into his left eye, and in the course of a few weeks went blind in both eyes.
Napoleon’s reforms had not extended to the weak or handicapped, and a blind child was usually either trained as a professional beggar or set to shoveling coal in a factory. Simon Rene Braille, however, was determined that his son should suffer no such fate. Louis attended the village school until he was 10. Then his father drove him to Paris and entered him in the Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles (for young blind people).
The Institution had exactly 3 books in its library at that time, each of which were divided into 20 parts weighing some 20 pounds each. The contents of these volumes were engraved in large embossed letters, and from these Louis learned to read. He was an exceptionally able student, both in his academic work and at the piano and organ, and before very long he was helping to teach the younger children.
In the same year that Louis Braille entered the Institution, Charles Barbier, a captain in the army, reported to the Academy of Sciences on his invention of “night writing”—a system of dots and dashes in relief on thin cardboard by which sentinels, using predetermined combinations, could send messages to each other at night. When Barbier later brought his work to the Institution, young Braille set about to improve it.
Working silently in bed at night with his board, stylus, and reams of soft paper, he tried and discarded this method and that until he finally hit upon a system of writing using only dots. He discovered that a simple key pattern of 2 dots across and 3 dots down—6 altogether—had quite a number of possible variations. Using this pattern as his “cell,” Braille gradually devised 63 separate combinations representing all the letters in the French alphabet (w was added later at the request of an Englishman), accents, punctuation marks, and mathematical signs.
Dr. Pignier, director of the Institution and Braille’s supporter, adopted his method almost immediately, and for a few happy years Braille saw his system flourish there while he himself taught, attended courses at the College de France, served as organist at Notre Dame des Champs, and by applying his system to musical notation, began to compose.
His musical talents were immediately recognized; he gave a concert that was acclaimed by many of the foremost musicians of his day, and he began to frequent the many musical salons of the French capital. But government bureaucracy prevented his system from being officially adopted at the Institution, and when Pignier left, his successor insisted that the teachers return to the officially approved embossed letters. Braille’s method went underground: The students continued to learn and use it, but surreptitiously, and they were punished if caught.
There exists a romantic story of how the French Government finally realized the superiority of the Braille method over all other reading systems for the blind. Supposedly, a young, and very talented blind girl, Therese von Kleinert, to whom Braille had taught the organ and his reading method, performed at the fashionable salon of a wealthy Parisian lady before many of the intellectuals of the day. After the applause, she informed her audience that the person they should be honoring was a man named Louis Braille, who had developed the system that enabled her to copy out her musical scores and to read and write. She noted sadly that Braille was dying of tuberculosis unrecognized. According to the story, Therese’s disclosure turned the tables, and Braille’s system was very soon adopted all over France.
Happy English learning!!