In the town of Coupvray, just outside Paris, Louis Braille was born on January 4, 1809. His birth would change the course of how blind people everywhere would be educated.

Learning to live without sight

Braille, a small, sickly son of a harness maker, lost his eyesight as a child due to a horrific accident. At age 3, Braille was playing in his father’s workshop when an awl he was handling slipped away from him and gouged his right eye. He acquired sympathetic ophthalmia, a rare condition in which trauma to one eye produces a dangerous inflammation in the uninjured eye in response. The young boy became permanently blind in both eyes.

Despite his disability, Braille became a respected musician with a particular talent for playing the organ. The year he turned 10, he received a scholarship to attend the National Institute for Blind Children in Paris. Before he turned 18, he was an instructor at the institue.

Learning a new way to see

At the institute, Braille was frustrated with the library books for students, all of which used raised Roman-typeface letters which proved difficult to interpret. He became interested in a writing system promoted by Charles Barbier de la Serre, a captain in the French army. Barbier called his system “night writing” since it was intended as a means for soldier to communicate without speaking in the dark.

In 1824, when he was 15 years old, Braille created his own version of Barbier’s night writing, which made use of varying arrangements of six-dot matrices or “cells” inscribed into heavy paper with a simple instrument. Braille’s newer version simplified Barbier’s twelve-dot configurations by reducing the number of dots in each grouping to six, and by creating every one of its 63 characters out of uniform columns.

Braille produced a basic book on his system in 1829 and adapted it to musical and mathematical notation. In 1837, he issued his version of a widely used history textbook in Braille. That same year also saw the publication of his comprehensive manual of the entire Braille system.

A long-overdue universal language

Braille’s pupils eagerly began to use his system, but its popularity did not extend much farther.

After contracting tuberculosis, Braille died in 1852. Two years later, his school officially adopted the method that continues to bear his name. Because of a “War of the Dots” among competing raised-character systems devised during Braille’s time and thereafter, it was not until the 20th century that Braille became the universally recognized writing system for the blind.

In 1932, officials representing a coalition of British and American organizations for blind people met to systematize Standard English Braille. Twenty-five years later, a similar group of authorities devised further improvements to the system.

Braille’s world today

The Braille writing system in use today makes use of 63 different characters. People who have been trained to read it can skim their fingers lightly over the raised dots with a fluency equal to sighted people reading written text. Due to their distinctive shapes and their ability to convey meanings to those trained in the system, the American Foundation for the Blind compares these raised dots to “constellations.”

Most of the world’s languages can now be written in Braille. And in addition to the standard system in which most Braille books are written, blind scientists and mathematicians can also read the technical symbols peculiar to their fields because of the Nemeth Code of Braille Mathematics and Scientific Notation, created in 1965. 

In 1892, Frank Hall invented a rudimentary machine to write Braille, which remains in use today in modified form. Today, Braille books can be produced using dedicated six-key machines, one key for each dot position within a letter cell. Electronic computer production is also in wide use.

Among his nation’s most honored

Today, the home where Braille grew up is the site of a museum dedicated in his honor and listed among France’s notable historic sites. Coupvray’s Braille Square is home to a large-scale monument to him and his work as well.

One hundred years after he died, Braille’s remains were relocated to the Panthéon in Paris, the resting place of numerous distinguished citizens of France, such as Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Marie and Pierre Curie. As a symbolic gesture, the remains of his hands were left in Coupvray, buried in the church near his childhood home.