His ingenious system revolutionised communication for people with visual impairments, enabling them to read independently for the first time. The characters, made up of different combinations of six dots set in a 2×3 grid, can be used to represent everything from basic letters and numbers to advanced mathematics and music.
Today, more than 30,000 people in the UK use braille to help them communicate. And even in the modern digital age, this 200-year-old invention is holding its own alongside smartphones and modern technology.
“Braille fulfils many uses that other technology cannot – it’s about finding the right solution for each individual and set of circumstances,” says James Bowden, a braille expert at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), who is also a braille user. “Screenreaders, which convert text into synthesised speech, can allow someone to digest a long document at speed, but this doesn’t always provide precision. Reading the same document in braille would enable you to spot spelling inconsistencies, and go back over any complex passages or sections to memorise or critique them.”
Many braille users extol the benefits of tactile communication, saying it’s far quicker for everyday uses such as labelling CDs and DVDs, identifying food packaging or organising paperwork. Using braille for such tasks is becoming more widespread: in October 2005, an EU directive decreed that all pharmaceutical products must be labelled to make them accessible for people with visual impairments.
Cleaning products such as bleach have, for years, featured warnings in braille, yet many organisations have now taken this further: some supermarkets have started including braille on their own-brand packaging, and many restaurant chains offer braille menus. There are also hundreds of books and magazines produced in braille, including novels, puzzle books, music magazines and chess guides.
It’s a far cry from the world Louis Braille experienced in the early 19th century, where there was little support available for people with disabilities, and no reliable way for blind people to read and write independently. Louis had been blind since the age of three, after accidentally stabbing himself in the eye with one of his father’s tools. As he grew up he was offered a place at one of the first schools in the world for blind children, the Royal Institute for the Blind in Paris.
When Louis was 11, his teachers invited a French army captain, Charles Barbier, to give a talk at his school. Barbier had invented ‘night writing’, a military code created for Napoleon, who wanted his soldiers to be able to communicate silently in the dark. Barbier’s system, which used up to 12 dots to represent individual sounds, was deemed to be too difficult for soldiers to learn. But scientists thought it might be useful for people with visual impairments.
Barbier’s system piqued young Louis’s interest, although he spotted some flaws: the characters were based on sounds, not letters, which made it difficult to write, and each 12-dot symbol was too large for people to read without moving their hand.
Louis’s idea was to simplify the code, using up to six dots in specific patterns to represent each letter of the alphabet. He worked tirelessly on his system, and at the age of 15 he presented the fruits of his labour for the first time. He continued to revise it over several years, and the expanded English version, published in 1905, is almost unchanged today.