Blind people can read thanks to Louis Braille ©Getty Images

Blind people can read thanks to Louis Braille ©Getty Images

Louis Braille, Inventor of Braille (1809 - 1852)

Louis Braille was born in 1809 in a small town near Paris. Playing in his father's leather workshop when he was 4, Louis tried to use a sharp, pointed tool called an awl, used for making holes in leather. He bent over, intending to try making shoes like his father did, but the awl slipped and went into his eye, blinding it.

With sight in just one eye, he attended school for two years, but his other eye became infected by the first, and he became totally blind. He had to leave school because he wouldn't be able to learn much more without eyesight. In those days there was little assistance for blind people, and most blind adults were forced to become beggars in the street as their only means of making any sort of living.

A school for the blind

When he was 10, a school for blind boys opened in Paris, one of the first such schools in the world. Louis was lucky enough to be accepted there as a pupil. As in all schools at that time, discipline was harsh, and pupils who misbehaved were beaten, locked up and fed bread and water. Most people left school at the age of 12 in order to work in factories or down mines.
At the school for the blind, pupils were taught practical skills like weaving cane seats on chairs or making slippers so that when they left the school they would be able to earn a living. Once a week, the boys were taken for a walk in the park, linked together by a long rope. They were taught to read but not to write. The writing they read was raised on the page so that they could feel the words with their fingertips. The letters were made by pressing copper wire alphabet shapes into one side of the paper to make a raised shape on the other. It was very difficult to tell the letters apart. Because each letter had to be made out of wire first and then forced into the paper with a press, blind people couldn't write anything for themselves.

His inspiration

In 1821 a soldier named Charles Barbier came to give a talk at the school. He told the students about a system he had invented called 'night writing', so that soldiers could pass instructions along at night without having to talk and let the enemy know where they were. Because they couldn't use a light, which would let the enemy spot them, they had to feel the messages. Night writing consisted of twelve raised dots which could be combined to represent different sounds. Unfortunately, this system was too complicated and the army didn't use it.

However, Louis was quick to see the possibilities of the system. He worked over the next few months and came up with a simpler version made up of 6 dots. For several years he developed it further, adding maths and music codes.

The first book in braille

In 1827 the first book in braille was published. It took a while for the system to catch on. Sighted people did not realise how useful it could be, and it was not taught in the school for the blind. However, blind children began learning it in secret. Eventually, the benefits of the system were realised and it was put into use. One major benefit was that at last blind people could write, using a simple tool to make the dots. This was the beginning of true independence for blind people.

A machine that types braille

One kind of Braille machine ©Getty Images

One kind of Braille machine ©Getty Images

Later in life, Louis Braille invented another new method for writing, called raphigraphy. It was a method that enabled both the blind and the sighted to read it, so that now blind people and sighted people could write to each other. He also invented a machine similar to a typewriter that produced raphigraphy.

Louis Braille became a teacher in the school where he had been a student. He did not live to see his system widely used. He had always had poor health, and he died of tuberculosis in 1852, at the age of 43.

There were enough people who realised the importance of his invention, so that it did not die out. In 1868 four blind men, led by Dr Thomas Armitage, started the British and Foreign Society for Improving the Embossed Literature of the Blind. This grew to become the Royal National Institute of the Blind, which is today the largest publisher of braille in Europe and Britain's largest organisation for people with impaired vision.

By 1990 braille was being used in almost every country in the world and had been adapted to almost every known language, from Albanian to Zulu.

Read more about the braille alphabet

How Louis Braille is remembered

Louis Braille coin, minted in the USA in 2009 to celebrate his birthday 200 years before

Louis Braille coin, minted in the USA in 2009 to celebrate his birthday 200 years before

In 1952, Louis Braille was officially recognised in France as one of the nation's heroes. His body was moved to Paris and buried in the Pantheon, where the greatest French achievers are honoured.