Head into Things About Me (TAM) in Thinktank and you will find some wonderful examples of the amazing things the human body can do. But often overlooked is a white place, which lots of little bumps on it. If you read the information next to it, we find out it is the rhyme twinkle, twinkle little star written in braille. Six dots, six bumps, but who made this code? None other than Louis Braille, a French school boy, who was also blind. And his work changed the world of reading and writing, forever.
Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, France, on January 4, 1809, the only child of Louis and Constance Braille. His father made leather saddles and harnesses for farmers in the area. At the age of three, while playing in his father's shop, young Louis was struck in the eye by an awl (a pointed tool for piercing holes in leather or wood). Within weeks of the accident, an eye infection took away his sight completely. Few opportunities existed for the blind at the time, so his father urged him to attend school with sighted children. He was an excellent student, mostly because of his exceptional memory.
In 1819 Braille received a scholarship to the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute of Blind Youth), founded by Valentin Haüy (1745–1822). He continued to excel in his studies. Then in 1821, a former soldier named Charles Barbier visited the school. Barbier shared his invention called "night writing," a code of 12 raised dots that let soldiers share top-secret information on the battlefield without even having to speak. Unfortunately, the code was too hard for the soldiers, but not for 12-year-old Louis! He quickly realised how useful this system could be, but thought it was too complicated. Over the next few years he worked hard to develop his own version of the code to replace the awkward embossed-word books in the Institute's library, which were the only thing he and his classmates could use up to that point.
By 1824, aged just 15 years old he had created a fingertip-sized six-dot code, based on the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, which could be recognized with a single contact of one finger. By changing the number and placement of dots, he coded letters, punctuation, numbers, familiar words, scientific symbols, mathematical and musical notation, and capitalisation. With the right hand the reader touched individual dots, and with the left hand he or she moved on toward the next line, grasping the text as smoothly and rapidly as sighted readers. Using the Braille system, students were also able to take notes by punching dots into paper with a pointed instrument that was lined up with a metal guide.
At the age of twenty, Braille published a written account describing the use of his coded system. In 1837 he issued a second publication featuring an expanded system of coding text. King Louis Philippe (1773–1850) praised the system publicly after a demonstration at the Paris Exposition of Industry in 1834, and Braille's fellow students loved it. However there were strong scepticisms among teachers, so unfortunately blind students had to study braille on their own. Even at the Royal Institution, where Louis taught after he graduated, braille wasn't taught. 1835 he had grown seriously ill with incurable tuberculosis (a lung infection) and was forced to resign his teaching post. Shortly before his death, a former student of his, a blind musician, gave a performance in Paris, France. She made a point of letting the audience know that she had learned everything she knew using the forgotten system developed by the now-dying Braille. This created renewed interest in and a revival of the Braille system, although it was not fully accepted until 1854, two years after the inventor's death.
While the use of braille spread to many countries, it continued to encounter strong resistance. This is thought to be because braille didn't look like print, and therefore wasn't easy for sighted people to read. In the UK a small group of blind people helped overcome the early resistance to braille. Thomas Rhodes Armitage, a wealthy physician who had sight problems himself, brought together a group of blind people and founded the British and Foreign Society for Improving the Embossed Literature for the Blind. They tested different communication systems for the blind and surveyed many blind readers. In 1870 they made the decision that braille would be the best choice for Britain. This group later went on to become RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People).