Braille has become known as the international written language among blind and visually impaired persons. Although named after Frenchman Louis Braille, there was a similar system from which Braille devised his version of the written language, created by Charles Barbier.
Charles Barbier and Night Writing
In the 1800s, Charles Barbier, a retired French artillery officer, first devised a code of writing that could be read by touch. The code was based on the use of several raised dots and dashes, which allowed messages to be read without the use of light. This was extremely important, since soldiers could send and receive messages to each other without having to light a lantern, a process which could easily alert the enemy of their location. Barbier coined his creation as “night writing.”
Barbier took his night writing concept to the military, but was rejected because some felt the written language would be too difficult for soldiers to learn. With the rejection, Barbier decided to take his code one step further, and ended up at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, then convinced that his night writing may prove useful to blind persons.
Louis Braille was born January 4, 1809. When Braille was a young child, he snuck into his father’s workshop, which was used for cutting and fastening strips of leather into harnesses. While trying to punch a hole in a piece of leather, the awl that he was using slipped, piercing his eye. The wound in Braille’s eye became infected and, after the infection spread to his other eye, he was left blind.
Attending a village school at age seven, Braille proved to be an exceptional student. Without the ability to read and write, however, he was at a strong disadvantage compared to the other students. At ten years old, Braille’s parents enrolled him in the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, where male students were able to study and learn a trade.
The few books that were available to read at the Royal Institute used a form of embossed print invented years before. The boys were able to trace raised print letters and numbers with their fingers. This form of written language for the blind changed, however, when Charles Barbier entered the school in 1821.
Braille for the Blind and Visually Impaired
When Barbier brought his night writing to the school, several of the boys were interested in experimenting with the new language, but lost interest after a short time, finding the code too difficult. That is, all but twelve-year-old Louis Braille, who saw the possibilities. Braille quickly mastered night writing, and spent many evenings trying to improve and simplify the code, coincidentally while using the same type of tool that had left him blind just a few years prior.
Barbier’s night writing was made of twelve dots, placed in two columns with six rows, and dashes. Words in the code were not written in traditional French spelling, but rather how they were pronounced, and there was no way to show the use of capitalization or punctuation. Doing away with the dashes, Braille developed a system using only six dots, two columns with three rows. The first ten letters of the Braille alphabet used only the four upper dots, the next ten added the left lower dots, and the letters u, v, x, y, and z incorporated both lower dots. The letter w was not in the original alphabet, as it was not used in French. Because it was added later, w does not fit the pattern of the rest.
By the time Braille was fifteen years old, he had perfected his writing system. The code, which would later be named for him, also could be used for both music and mathematics. The new system had symbols for capitalization and punctuation, which Barbier’s night writing did not. In 1844, the Braille system became the method of reading and writing at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, where Louis Braille taught several subjects for the remainder of his life.
Today, the Braille code is used internationally among the blind and visually impaired. Although the system is named for Louis Braille, it must be remembered that without Charles Barbier and his invention of night writing, the written language would not have become what it is today.