Louis Braille

the awl and the script

As a little boy, son of a carpenter from Coupvray in France, Louis Braille (1809-1852) liked to play in his father’s workshop. At the age of three, in doing so, he injured himself after accidentally punching himself in the eye with an awl. The resulting infection eventually led to total blindness.

In 1819, Braille went to the National Institute for Blind Children in Paris where he learned that an officer in the French army had developed a kind of night writing to convey messages to the front. It consisted of a grid of twelve dots on which codes were embossed in relief that could be felt in the dark. Presumably Louis Braille elaborated on this system until, at only 20 years of age, he presented a fully-fledged script for the blind. Braille had replaced the twelve dots by a less complicated system with six dots in which, apart from ordinary and upper-case letters, it was also possible to use punctuation marks, numbers, and other indications.

Fellow students began to use braille immediately but it was not until 1854, two years after his death, that the script was recognised by the Institute as a fully-fledged reading and writing language for the blind. Braille remains the standard script everywhere for the blind and visually impaired to communicate in writing and absorb information. Braille has even been developed for music, mathematics and word processing on the computer and mobile phone.

With his braille script, Louis Braille has given many visually impaired people freedom. Freedom to develop personally, to communicate and to participate in society. Or, as Jaap from Alkmaar observes with humour: as a blind person, I am eternally grateful to Louis for having punched the awl into his eye and not into his ear!