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History of Louis Braille




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Louis Braille was a Capricorn, born on January 4, 1809, in the village of Coupvray, which lies approximately 50 kilometers east of Paris.

His father, Simon-Rene Braille, was a saddler; his mother, Monique Baron, was the daughter of an agricultural laborer. Louis had three older siblings, two sisters and a brother. Louis, the fourth child, arrived 11 years after the birth of the third child and, according to comments attributed to Hippolyte Coltat, a friend of the family, was his father's favourite.

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In 1812, when Louis was three years old, he was playing in the father's workshop, imitating his father at work. While trying to cut a piece of leather thong, using his father's small pruning knife, the accident occurred that was to change his life forever and, consequently, the lives of visually impaired persons to this day.

Though the exact details cannot be verified today, Hippolyte Coltat told others that young Louis' hand slipped under the exertion of cutting the thong, and the point of the pruning knife pierced his eye.

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It is known that the village had a doctor and a chemist, and that Louis was cherished by his parents. The course of Louis treatment is not known, but it is known that the injured eye became infected and was not surgically removed immediately.

Thus, through sympathetic ophthalmia, the infection spread, via the optic nerve, to the other eye.

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(Ophthalmia is an acute infection of the eyeball or the membrane covering the front of the eyeball.)

As is common when vision has been lost before the age of 6 or 7, Louis Braille did not retain any memory of precise visual images.

When Louis was nine years old, his father entered into correspondence with the Minister of the Interior regarding curriculum and whether it might be beneficial for Louis to attend the Institution Royales des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris. After lengthy consideration, Louis was nominated, by the Minister, for attendance to the school.

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At school, Louis applied himself to his studies and was an accomplished student. Later he became a professor at the school.

It was not Louis Braille who invented the first form of writing by means of dots. This invention is attributed to Charles Barbier, who was an artillery officer. He developed an interest in rapid, secret writing, as it pertains to matters of war, where speed and secrecy are mandatory.

Barbier invented a method of "cutting out" writing with a pen knife. This method made it possible to scribe several copies at once. Barbier's experience may have made him aware of the benefit to an officer able to write messages in the dark and decipher them with his fingers.

Louis was about 12 years old when Charles Barbier brought his writing system, called "sonography" to the school. Louis immediately saw the potential, as well as the problems with the system. The Barbier system was based on a 12-dot cell and phonetic soundings.

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Over the next three years, Louis worked on simplifying the system, which is how the 6-dot braille system came into being. After that was accomplished, Louis eventually evolved his new system to include notation for numbers and music.

It is interesting to note that the building which housed the school, and where braille as we know it was developed, was already standing in 1247 and, before being purchased to house the school it had been used for:

  • a college for poor scholars
  • was occupied for eight years (1624 to 1632) by St. Vincent de Paul and his disciple, Portail, having been reconstructed one year after their arrival
  • housed Lazarists
  • was a prison for recalcitrant priests during the French Revolution (the priests were eventually slaughtered there);
  • a house of ill repute
  • headquarters of the "Sans Culottes"
  • a school of archery

Then it was bought by Sieur Huin and leased to the Institution Royales des Jeunes Aveugles. Afterwards, the building housed a post office and was demolished in 1935 to make room for the new Post Office 28.

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The school itself was small, cramped, damp, and very unsanitary. Mortality among the students was deemed high. These conditions came under scrutiny in 1832. In 1838, funds were provided for upgrading of the facilities.

It is almost certain that Louis Braille contracted tuberculosis at the school. He showed the first symptoms of the disease at the age of 26. In early December, 1851, Louis began to hemorrhage. This was attributed to a cold, but got progressively worse. He died on January 6, 1852, at the age of 46.

In 1952, the one-hundredth anniversary of his death, his body was moved to the Pantheon, in Paris, in recognition by France, of Louis Braille's contribution to improving the quality of life of the visually impaired.

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