The son of a harness-maker, Louis Braille was born on 4th January 1809 in Coupvray, France. Braille was blinded by an accident when he was three and was subsequently educated at the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris. It was there that Braille developed a raised-dot code that enabled blind people to read and write.
Whilst playing in his father’s shop, Braille injured his eye on a sharp tool. Despite the best care available at the time, eventually both eyes became infected and by the time Braille was five he was completely blind. Despite this, his parents wanted him to have an education and he attended his local school and learnt through listening to the classes.
At the age of 16, Braille was a student at The National Institute for Blind Youth – the first school of its kind, founded by Valentin Haüy. Braille was said to have spent all his time outside the classroom poking holes in paper, trying to come up with a more efficient way to represent letters and numbers tactilely. Until then, blind students read by tracing raised print letters with their fingers which was an extremely slow process, and many couldn’t grasp the technique. Writing required memorisation of the shapes of letters and then an attempt to reproduce them on paper, which was also extremely difficult without being able to see or read the results.
Inspiration struck Braille when he heard Charles Barbier, a retired artillery office in Napoleon’s army, demonstrate a note-taking system using embossed dots to represent sounds – this was developed to allow notes to be passed among the ranks without striking a light and alerting the enemy to their position.
Braille found Barbier’s system promising; but he also discovered its shortcomings. It was quite complex, and it was based on sounds rather than letters. By 1824 Braille had created a system that had only six dots – three dots lined up in each of two columns. He assigned different combinations of dots to different letters and punctuation marks, with a total of 64 symbols.
After a successful life as a teacher, musician, research and inventor, on the 6th January 1852 Louis Braille died in Paris of tuberculosis at the age of 43. His legacy lives on and Braille code is used today in almost every country in the world, adapted to almost every known language.