Louis Braille was born in 1809 in Coupvray, a village near Paris. His father was a saddler and little Louis liked to play in his father’s workshop. Unfortunately at the age of three he accidentally pushed a sharp tool called an awl into his eye. His eye became infected. The infection spread to his other eye leaving the small child completely blind. Despite this terrible setback, Louis went to the local school and proved an avid pupil. He was a quick learner and a diligent student despite his disability. At the age of 10 he won a scholarship to the only school for the blind in France, the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris.
The school was run by Valentin Hauy who had developed a system to enable blind people to read. He printed books using regular letters which were raised and embossed so that the reader could feel their shapes. It was a method designed by sighted people. Blind people found it slow and clumsy but it worked. The books were large, heavy and expensive to produce so the school had only a handful.
Louis Braille was determined to find a better way for the blind to read. In 1821, at the age of 12, he learned of a communication system invented by a Captain in the French Army, Charles Barbier. If a soldier lit a match at night to read a message then the light became a target for an enemy sniper so Barbier devised a code which could be read in the dark. It consisted of dots and dashes raised on thick paper. It was complex and difficult to use but Braille immediately saw the potential of the idea.
Braille spent many hours experimenting with the concept and developed a much better system by 1824, when he was just fifteen. He rotated the Barbier design and simplified it. He dropped the dashes and used two standard columns containing a total of 6 dots. His most important improvement was to create a cell which could be recognised with a single touch of a finger. He published his system in 1829 and printed the first book using it.
After graduation he stayed at the school as first an assistant and then a teacher. He was a very gifted musician, being an accomplished cellist and organist. He played the organ at many churches in Paris.
Despite his failing health he continued to refine and develop his system and he incorporated mathematical symbols and musical notation. He was highly respected and admired by pupils and staff at the school but his new writing system was not adopted by the school or elsewhere. Indeed the governors of the school and traditional educators opposed it.
He died of consumption in 1852. After this death pupils at the Institute insisted that his system be used there and its advantages became apparent. It spread first through the French-speaking world and gradually beyond. A universal braille code for English was formalized in 1932 and it has now been officially adopted by schools for the blind throughout the world. There are now braille computer terminals and email systems. The braille system has proved an invaluable aid to blind people everywhere.
Louis Braille remains an inspiration. He suffered a terrible adversity yet used it to devise a way to make things better for fellow sufferers. His genius was ignored during his lifetime but it is recognised worldwide today.
Based on a chapter in Think like an Innovator by Paul Sloane published by Pearson.