Braille

For the seeing fingers of blind people.

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There is believed to be only one surviving photograph of Louis Braille and we can be confident that he didn't see a thing whilst it was being taken...because he was dead at the time. In 2009, however, we celebrated the start of his life, as a fully-sighted child, born two hundred years ago. Despite being blinded in a childhood accident he would go on to do remarkable work as a teacher of both blind and sighted pupils though his methods took time to gain acceptance and his fame is almost entirely posthumous, hence the lack of portraits.

Braille's father had a shoe and harness-making workshop. The three year-old Louis played where he shouldn't and accidentally stabbed himself in the left eye with an awl. The resulting cross infection caused him the loss of sight in both eyes. It was an awl, however, that he used to good effect in 1824 to punch dots on paper in representation of alphabetical letters. Many websites give incomplete or even inaccurate accounts of the development. The timeline below is our best attempt at accuracy but we would welcome corrections or additions:

  •     1784-6 - The Royal Institute for Blind Youth was founded in Paris by Valentin Haüy who pioneered a system of raised letters for the creation of reading materials to use in the school
  •     1791 - After the Revolution the French Constituent Assembly decreed the institute be renamed the Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles
  •     1801 - The Institute amalgamated with another to become, eventually, the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles (INJA)
  •     4 Jan 1809 - Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, France
  •     1812 - He was accidentally blinded in the left eye
  •     1813 - He finally lost the sight in his right eye
  •     1819 - He received a scholarship to the Institute, now under the direction of Sébastien Guillié (succeeded in turn by Dr. Alexandre François-René Pignier in 1821)
  •     1821 - Pupils at the school were taught the Code Barbier a method for representing sounds through combinations of twelve raised dots (based on a military communication system for sending messages in the dark). Louis Braille started to work to improve the system which had already been discarded as ineffective by the French Army
  •     1824 - Braille perfected a system based on cells of just six dots, representing individual letters. It is suitable for both reading and writing. Pignier adopted it for the pupils at the Institute
  •     1828 - Braille was appointed an apprentice teacher at the Institute. He qualified in 1833 and taught only blind pupils from 1835
  •     1829 - The first book about braille was published: Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them (English title). Although it included some examples of Braille's raised dot system the overall book was produced in embossed type.
  •     1834 - The braille system was demonstrated at the Paris Exposition
  •     1839 - Braille published details of the Decapoint method he had developed for blind people to communicate with sighted people, using patterns of ten dots to approximate the shape of printed symbols: Nouveau Procédé Pour Représenter Par Des Points La Forme Même des Lettres, les Cartes de Géographie, les Figures de Géométrie, les Caracteres de Musique etc. à l’Usage des Aveugles
  •     1839 - Braille's Precis Sur L'Histoire De France was the first full-length book to be produced using the braille raised dot system
  •     1840 - Pierre-Armand Dufau ceased the use of braille at the Institute but was later persuaded by Joseph Guadet to reinstate its use
  •     1844 - The Institute moved to new premises and built a reputation for the use of braille. Louis Braille took three years off due to ill health. He returned in 1847 but was eventually forced to retire in 1850
  •     6 Jan 1852 - Louis Braille died of tuberculosis aged 43 and two days
  •     1854 - The system of braille was officially recognised in France
  •     1868 - Founding of the British and Foreign Society for Improving the Embossed Literature of the Blind. This extended its name within six months to become the British and Foreign Blind Association for Improving the Embossed Literature of the Blind and Promoting their Employment...a forerunner of the NIB (1914), subsequently the RNIB (1953)
  •     5 May 1870 - The BFBAIELBPE adopted braille as the best format for blind people and published the UK's first key to the braille alphabet and music notation. In April 1871 it published the first issue of Progress, the braille magazine
  •     1878 - The Paris congress decided to adopt braille as the international system used for writing by the blind but could enforce its use over rival forms of embossed lettering
  •     1889 - The UK developed an Arabic braille code
  •     1890 - Standard system of braille adopted in England
  •     1893 - The first dictionary of braille contractions was released in the UK
  •     1917 - Standard system of braille adopted in the USA
  •     1932 - Standard system of braille adopted in all English-speaking countries
Braille Galuser press

Braille press made for the National Institute for the Blind (hence its date is pre-1953) by J. M. Glauser of London

 

American braille press

American braille press made by Howe of Watertown, Massachussetts

 

  •     1952 On the centenary of his death Braille's body was transferred to the Pantheon in Paris. Pierre Henri published the standard biography: La vie et l'oeuvre de Louis Braille: Inventuer de l'alphabet des aveugles (1809-1852) - copy available in the College Library
  •     Braille stamp 1954 1954 A Brazilian postage stamp was issued to mark the centenary of education for the blind in that country

 

Did you know? The full name of the RNIB is often misquoted even though it last changed as long ago as 2002 when the 'Royal National Institute for the Blind' changed to the 'Royal National Institute of Blind People' reflecting its newly constituted status as a membership organisation.

  • Braille card game

'The Game of Bali' a card game with braille dots made for the RNIB.

  • 2002 - Establishment of All Party Parliamentary Group on Eye Health and Visual Impairment, a joint venture between the College of Optometrists and the RNIB
  • 26 March 2009 - Commemorative silver coin featuring the letters BRL in braille was issued by the United States Mint. The reverse also shows a child reading a braille book whilst the obverse bears a portrait of the man himself.
Reverse of Louis Braille commemorative American coin

 

Finally we thought that our members would like to see what 'The College of Optometrists' looks like when written in braille, though until someone invents raised texture computer screens this is likely to be of symbolic rather than any practical use.

College of Optometrists in braille:

College of Optometrists spelled out in braille dots

 

 

Note: the College also holds copies of some RNIB images on blindness including the use of braille, the Moon alphabet and tactile maps. These cannot be reproduced online but are available to scholars using our study facilities.

Charity collecting box in form of a squirrel

Who could resist this cute little fellow? All the pleasure of a furry creature who's just found his nuts is written on his toothy face. As the label indicates, he's in the business of collecting...in this case money for one of our sister eyesight charities and campaigning organisations, the RNIB.

The collecting box probably dates from the 1980s. In the 2000s the charity introduced a subtle but significant change to its name...instead of being a Royal National Institute 'for the blind' they were to be 'of blind people'. So boxes labelled like this one became museum pieces.

Storing our extensive collections is a bit like squirreling too, but with strict location control, administered via our computerised collections management system, we know where all our nuts are. If we didn't know already we could find out that via a quick electronic search that this little fellow is currently on display in the Giles Room in Case H. Our Chief Squirrel Keeper will be delighted to point you in his direction if you promise not to chew the exhibits when you visit.

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