BRL: Braille through Remote Learning

Intro to Braille Course

Session 1 main page
Session Objectives

Session Topics
  • Writing for the Blind: A Brief History
  • The Braille System
  • Pre-Modern Day Braille
  • Modern Day Braille
  • Assessment Exercise

    Other BRL Courses
  • Transcribers Course
  • Special Codes Course

  • Session 1: The Braille System

    Barbier's system was not intended as a tool for educating blind children or for allowing blind people to communicate effectively. Barbier was an engineer in the French army. His motivation was to create a method of sending secret messages that could be read without light. Barbier did, however, develop an interest in the use of his system with the blind, and in 1820 he presented his method to the Institute for the Blind in Paris. One of Barbier's students at the Institute was Louis Braille.

    Louis Braille was blinded at the age of three as a result of an accident with his father's knives, who was a harness maker in a small town near Paris. His father worked to have him educated at a local school, and created letters by hammering upholstery nails into a wooden board. At the age of ten, Louis was enrolled in the Institute for the Blind in Paris, where he encountered Barbier. Braille remained at the school his entire life, serving as a teacher for more that twenty years. Braille modified Barbier's code by reducing the twelve dot cell to six dots, two columns of three dots. Louis Braille also created a system of notating music, since he himself was a musician. Braille's system of writing was formally instituted at the school in 1854, and was quickly adapted to other languages. Braille, to his credit, throughout his life argued that credit for the invention of raised dots should go to Barbier, but the system perfected by Louis Braille now bears his name. As a semantics note, you will often see the term "Braille" with a capital letter, used to signify all of the systems that use this methodology, including literary braille, music, mathematics, and other technical notational systems.

    The braille notation did not arrive in the United States until around 1860, when it was adopted for use at the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis. However, a number of others were still exploring raised letters. In Boston, Samuel Gridley Howe of the Perkins School for the Blind had developed the Boston Line Type, which was a modification of regular letters using slanted lines. Howe's method was used in the United States for more than 50 years. In Philadelphia, Julius Freidlander had also developed an embossed letter system for use at the Pennsylvania Institute for the Blind.

    Around the same time, William Bell Wait of the New York Institute for the Blind modified French braille by trying to create braille cell symbols that used the least number of dots for the most frequently used letters. One of the criticisms of Louis Braille's code was that the easiest to read braille cells did not correspond to the most frequently occurring letters. Wait's system, known as New York Point, also allowed for capitalization by adding specific dots to form capital letters. Wait's system was presented and recommended for use in American schools in 1871 at a meeting of the American Association of Instructors of the Blind.

    Around the same time, Michael Anagnos at the Perkins Institution worked with a blind piano tuner, Joel Smith, to modify French braille by retaining the original twelve letters and then re-designing the others to reflect frequency of occurrence. In addition, a dot prefix was used for the first time to enable capitalization. The system developed was known as Modified, or American, braille.