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Long Road of the Braille Code

It Took a Century for Braille to Emerge as the Primary Language of the Blind


Long Road of the Braille Code

Blind readers decipher braille letters by recognizing the raised dot patterns within each braille cell.

David Sullivan, CIOPhoto

From its inception, blind students at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris found Louis Braille's symbolic language of raised dots far easier to read than embossed books -- tactile impressions of print letters.

Despite the simple elegance and students' ease of deciphering the six-dot cell, braille was actually banned for a time at the very school where it was invented. Braille needed more than a century to emerge as the primary language of the blind.

Teachers of the blind, most of whom couldn't read braille, felt threatened. Some feared loss of authority or their job. Others, usually with no input from blind people, championed their own systems, such as Boston Line Type and New York Point, despite limitations obvious to braille readers.

Braille eventually won out, though conflicts over the development of a unified braille code persist. Following is a timeline of braille's path to becoming the primary language for the world's 180 million blind people.

Louis Braille Makes Blind Literacy Possible

1809: Louis Braille born in Coupvary, France. He is blinded at age three after stabbing his eye with a serpette (a slender, curved knife) in his father's harness shop.

1819: Braille enters the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (Royal Institute for Blind Youth) in Paris.

1821: Braille experiments with "night writing," a raised-dot system developed for the French military by M. Charles Barbier. Intended for secret nighttime communications, night writing used a 12-dot cell. Braille saw its main flaw -- inability of a fingertip to feel all 12 dots at once -- and begins modifying a new system around a six-dot cell.

1829: Braille publishes his six-cell code, including a separate code for musical notations.

1832: Samuel Gridley Howe, husband to Julia Ward Howe and superintendent of the New England Asylum for the Blind (now the Perkins School for the Blind), develops Boston Line Type based on letter shapes.

1835: The Acts of the Apostles becomes the first book embossed using Boston Line Type.

1840: Royal Institut director Pierre Dufau temporarily bans braille use.

1843: Pierre Foucault builds the raphigraph (needle writer), a machine for writing Roman letters using Braille's decapoint system. The machine, awarded a platinum medal from the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry, is considered the first dot-matrix printer.

1852: Louis Braille dies in Coupvray at 43.

1854: The Missouri School for the Blind adopts braille after Dr. Simon Pollak observes its use in Europe.

1858: The American Printing House for the Blind is established in Louisville, Kentucky to produce embossed books.

The "War of the Dots"

1868: British and Foreign Blind Association -- whose book publishing sparks widespread use of braille -- is founded. William Bell Wait publishes his revised raised-dot system, New York Point.

1871: American Association of Instructors of the Blind (AAIB) endorses New York Point and recommends its use in all US schools for the blind.

1879 Congress passes the "Act to Promote the Education of the Blind," providing funds under a federal quota system for the production of free braille textbooks.

1892: Dissatisfied with New York Point, AAIB-member school superintendents adopt Modified braille (developed by Joel W. Smith in 1878 and later renamed American Braille) despite no published books in that format.

Frank H. Hall, superintendent of the Illinois School for the Blind, demonstrates his "braille stereotypemaker," the first braillewriter, enabling blind persons to write up to 100 words per minute.

1893: In response to Hall's braillewriter, William Bell Wait develops the Kleidograph, extending New York Point's viability another 20 years.

The Braille System Wins Out Over Other Raised-Letter Formats

1909: The New York Board of Education selects American braille over New York Point for use in public schools following contentious public hearings. New York Point's lack of capitals, hyphens, and apostrophes, which made it seem less literary than braille, was a major factor.

1916: Research by the Commission on Uniform Type confirms braille's greater reach over New York Point in both users and published materials.

1918: The AAIB endorses the work of the Commission on Uniform Type, adopting British braille for mathematical and chemical notations.

1932: English-speaking nations accept uniform braille code; Spanish-speaking nations follow in 1951.

1951: David Abraham creates the Perkins Brailler, which offers interpoint (two-sided) embossing, making braillewriting easier for students and teachers.

1991: Braille Authority of North America and the International Council on English Braille embark on an as yet unattained Unified English Braille Code.

2007:The National Braille Press introduces its Touch of Genius Prize in honor of Louis Braille, to promote innovations in tactile learning technologies.

Braille's slow acceptance shows human nature at its best and worst: the genius who gave the life-changing gift of literacy to blind people, and the myopic self-importance of teachers who sought to fix something that was never broken.

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