While drawing from multiple sources and generally available information, much of the material in this post was adapted from the detailed history at http://www.brailler.com/braillehx.htm.
I’m going with an educational post today, and there’s a reason for that. October 15 is White Cane Day, and last year I did a post about the history of the modern white cane and its use in the Daredevil comic, complete with plenty of panels from the archives. So, I thought I’d make the educational angle something of a tradition on this particular day.
As I think I’ve mentioned before, I knew little about blindness before becoming a Daredevil fan, or at least not much more than the average person. The same goes for my knowledge of braille, the topic of this post. Sure, I knew the basics, that is that it was a tactile system of reading consisting of raised dots, and that it had been created roughly two hundred years ago by the blind Frenchman Louis Braille. That was about all I knew. Over the last two years, since starting this blog, I’ve had the opportunity to learn much more. Not because it’s in any way vital to what’s happening in the Daredevil comic (where references to braille are few and far in between), but because I’m one of those people who are easily fascinated by anything remotely interesting.
Most people probably have at least a passing familiarity with the story of Louis Braille, the inventor of the writing system that bears his name. What most people probably don’t realize is how long it took for braille to be recognized, or even accepted, and what other methods were used in the instruction of the blind at the time.
Louis Braille was born in 1809 and became blind gradually at the age of three, following an accident in his father’s workshop. While this accident left him without any sort of superpowers, it is clear from what we know about his life that he had intellectual abilities that would rival those of even the most ingenious of supervillains. After having very successfully attended the local school for sighted children in his home town, something which would have been highly unusual at the time, young Louis was sent to the school for the blind in Paris in 1819, at the age of ten.
The school itself, founded by Valentin Haüy (more on him later) in 1786, had seen its share of ups and downs during the political turmoil which characterized France for decades following the French Revolution. When Louis arrived, the school was run by the ophthalmologist Dr. Guillié who not only ran it like a sweatshop, but reportedly used his students for questionable medical experiments. His one saving grace may have been his interest in music which lead the school to have an excellent music program. The buildings, however, were poor, the food lousy and the mortality rate among the students was very high. Still, Louis Braille managed to adapt well to life at the school and quickly made many lifelong friends among his fellow students.
Even before the invention of the braille system, there were ways for the blind to read. Valentin Haüy had come up with a revolutionary method of using established printing techniques to create embossed letters that could be discerned by touch. The method of creating books through this process was quite laborious, however, and the embossed print could not be used by the blind students to write, and was slow and difficult to read since each letter had to be traced individually. The frustrations surrounding the subject of reading and writing was quite clearly a major driving force for Louis who had played around with tactile writing during his summer vacations even before the encounter that would change his life and lead to his breakthrough.
In 1821, the unsympathetic Dr. Guillié had been removed from power in the wake of a sex scandal involving the female headmistress. His replacement as school director was an André Pignier who didn’t waste any time improving the school and the lot of the students who were now allowed frequent outings. With a more progressive policy in place, the school was visited by a Charles Barbier de la Serre who had invented a method of writing for the French army to be used for conveying messages at night or in other poor conditions. The code consisted of raised dots and was written using a simple tool similar to the slate and stylus which is still used today to write braille by hand. One can only imagine Louis Braille’s excitement the first time he touched the code, knowing right away that this was the answer he was looking for.
There were problems with the code, however, the most obvious being the large “cells” consisting of two by six dots that were too big to easily fit under the fingertip. Louis went about changing the code and finally came up with a system that would allow for many different combinations of dots in a cell of half that size. That way, one could easily discern the entire letter by running the tip of the finger across is. In the fall of 1824, upon returning to the school, Louis Braille unveiled his new writing system. He was only fifteen years old.
The new writing system was a huge hit among the students who quickly learned it and began to use it. Pignier was also an enthusiastic fan of the system, and of Louis, and continued to support his efforts, later making him the first blind apprentice teacher at the school. In 1829, at the age of twenty, Braille published “Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them.” The image on the right shows it in the embossed print version.
The braille code had its detractors, however. Many of the sighted teachers weren’t too keen on having to learn a system alien to them, and there were others who were against it for even more outrageous reasons. In 1837, P. Armand Dufau, a former geography teacher and current assistant director at the school, published a book called “The Blind: Considerations On Their Physical, Moral And Intellectual State, With A Complete Description Of The Means Suitable To Improve Their Lot Using Instruction And Work” which won an award from the French Academy. The book made no mention of Braille’s system, and Dufau openly opposed it, claiming it made blind people “too independent.” When Dufau rose to the rank of director at the school, he took all of the books that had been printed or hand-written in braille and burned them, along with the older books using Haüy’s embossed print. All braille-writing equipment was confiscated, and Dufau instead introduced a form of embossed print developed by a John Alston in Glasgow.
The students rebelled and continued to read and write braille, the older ones passing it on to the younger ones, even if it meant using everything from knitting needles to forks to produce the dots. Braille’s code had been so overwhelmingly embraced by the blind people who had had the fortune of learning it that no form of intervention could keep them from using it. The rebellion was, quite surprisingly, very successful. Dufau’s assistant, Joseph Gaudet, had become a braille supporter, learning it himself, and managed to persuade his superior that if the authorities found out about his inability to control the students, it wouldn’t look too good. Besides, if the school backed an invention by one of its students, it would be in the interest of the school which would then share the glory. This lead to Dufau endorsing public demonstrations of the code and people were stunned at the speed and accuracy with which the blind were able to read and write.
Louis Braille died at the age of forty-three in January of 1852. His passing was completely ignored by the press, but only two years later his famous code was accepted as the official communication system for the blind in France. Braille has since spread across the globe, despite plenty of opposition – and various competing systems. Some of the alternative systems were based on the basic dot structure of braille, while others were more similar to printed letters. The only other form of tactile reading system in use today is the Moon type, which is in the latter category (see below).
Braille was introduced in the United States circa 1860, initially at the St. Louis School for the Blind, and was taught with success. In the United States, there was competition from the New York point system, developed by William Bell Wait, and the matter of which system would reign supreme wasnt settled until the so-called War of the Dots. In 1916, it was decided that a standard close to that of British Braille would be used.
What history does tell us for sure is that tactile writing systems based on dots, such as the one devised by Louis Braille at the age of fifteen, leaves any form of system based on embossed print in the dust. Braille-like systems work in harmony with the sense of touch and can be read at much greater speeds. This is one of the reasons I would like to see braille more firmly established as Matt Murdock’s preferred reading mode in the Daredevil comic. Heightened senses or not, the fingertip prefers dots to swirls.