Louis Braille (1809–1852)

The Early Years

Louis Braille was born on January 4, 1809, in , a small village 25 miles from Paris, France, to Monique and Simon-René Braille. His father was a successful businessman who owned farmland and a vineyard but was best known as a master craftsman of harnesses, saddles, and other leather goods. 

Braille house in Coupvray, France.

Louis Braille's childhood home in Coupvray, France.

One day, 3-year-old Louis was playing in his father’s workshop. Probably in an attempt to imitate his father, he picked up an awl and tried to punch holes in a piece of leather. As the result of an accident, the awl pierced Louis’ right eye, creating what was thought to be a minor injury. The wound soon became infected, however, and the infection spread to the other eye. By age 5, Louis was blind in both eyes.

Louis’ parents knew the importance of education and taught him to read and write by having him feel upholstery nails that had been hammered in the shape of letters and words into boards. The local priest, Abbé Palluy, also tutored Louis until he was 7 years old, when he was accepted in 1816 as a student at the local village school. Interestingly, he was enrolled with sighted children; apparently he was “mainstreamed” 200 years ago. By all accounts, Louis performed well in his studies.

A few years later, Abbé Palluy located a school in Paris that specialized in teaching blind students and believed that the 10-year-old Louis could profit by attending. In 1819, with the approval of his parents, Louis was enrolled in the Royal Institution for Blind Youth (after the French Revolution, the name was changed to the National Institute for the Young Blind).

At the time of Louis’ enrollment, the Institution (and school) consisted of a single building that was more than 200 years old and had been used as a prison during the French Revolution. It was filthy and had not been adapted for blind students. The meager meals provided were usually confined to porridge and slabs of doughy bread. The boy was also greatly disappointed to find that the Institution had very few books that were suitable for reading by blind students. These 14 books were “printed” using a system of embossing (raised lettering) that had been invented some years previously by the Institution’s founder, Valentin Haüy. Students read these books by using their fingers to trace the embossed letters and words while simultaneously sounding out each sentence word by cumbersome word.

During the next 5 years, Louis did well at school, excelling in academics and music. He was especially accomplished as a cellist, pianist, and organist.

In 1820, when Louis was just 12 years old, Alexander Francois-René Pignier, director of the Institution, invited Charles Barbier de la Serre to speak to its staff and students. An officer in the French Army, Barbier had invented a method whereby soldiers at the front could communicate with one another at night without resorting to speech or other utterances. His system, which he called “sonography,” involved punching 12 raised dots on cardboard in various positions to represent sounds in words. Barbier believed that this system could be a very useful way for people who were blind to learn to read and write. The Army soon lost interest in Barbier’s system, however, because soldiers found it too difficult to learn.

The Productive Years

Undeterred by the rejection of Barbier’s system, Louis believed that the general idea held promise for use with the blind. He set to work designing a simpler six-dot version in which combinations of dots and spaces representing graphemes (e.g., letters, numbers, punctuation marks) were depicted on a 2 x 3 grid. For 3 years, from 1822 to 1825, Braille perfected his six-dot embossed system. He was only 13 to 16 years old at the time. 

Braille alphabet.

Braille alphabet

In 1828, 19-year-old Louis was appointed an apprentice teacher at the Institution, where he taught both blind and sighted students. With a salary of 180 francs per year, his professional and adult life began. He was promoted to a full-time teaching position in 1833.

In 1829, Louis Braille published Method of Writing Words, Music and Plain Songs by Means of Dots for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them (1829). Although in poor health, he published a second edition of this book in 1837 and Little Synopsis of Arithmetic for Beginners, his second book, in 1838. Both books were “printed” in braille, his six-dot system. 

During the 1830s, Louis developed another system (called decapoint) that allowed people who were blind to communicate easily with sighted people. This system consisted of a set of 100 raised dots arranged on a 10 x 10 grid for writing letters of the Roman alphabet. Collaborating with Pierre-Francois-Victor Foucauld, another former Institution student, Louis created a precursor of the typewriter, a machine called a raphigraphe (needle writer) for mechanically writing decapoint. In 1843, the Society for Encouragement of National Industry awarded a platinum medal to Foucauld for the invention of the machine.

Louis Braille

Louis Braille

The Later Years

In 1840, a new director of the Institution, Pierre-Armand Dufau, was appointed. Dufau did not approve of either Haüy’s embossing method or Braille’s six-dot code. He even ordered the burning of 73 books that the Institution had produced using Haüy’s method. Dufau advocated for a new embossing system then used in the United States and Scotland; eventually this system was found to be less effective than Braille’s six-dot code. After 1845, Braille’s code became increasingly accepted, and in 1854 it was adopted as the authorized system in France for teaching literacy skills to people who were blind.

In 1835, when Louis was only 26, he had been diagnosed as having tuberculosis, a condition that he probably contracted some time previously. The effects of this illness required that he move to Coupvray in 1844 for three years of rest. He returned to the Institution in 1847, but his health continued to deteriorate. Louis Braille died on January 6, 1852, at 43 years of age. He was buried in Coupvray’s cemetery. In the years after his death, the extent of his contributions became increasingly evident and appreciated. In 1952, his body was reinterred in the Pantheon in Paris; his hands, however, remain in an urn in the village cemetery at Coupvray.

Braille statue.

Braille statue in the village cemetery at Coupvray.


American Foundation of the Blind. (2009). Celebrating 200 years of braille. Retrieved from http://www.afb.org/LouisBrailleMuseum

Belusic, D. The life of Louis Braille. Retrieved from http://www.cfb.ca/newsite/Conventions/louisbraille-story.html

Herie, E. (2008, August). Six dots that changed the world: Remembrance of Louis Braille (1809-2009). Presentation at the Seventh World Blind Union General Assembly, Geneva, Switzerland. Retrieved from www.worldblindunion.org/en/documents/general-assembly/presentations/Louis-BrailleEulogy.doc+Six+Dots+That+Changed+the+

Kimbrough, P. (n.d.). How braille began. Retrieved from http://www.brailler.com/braillehx.htm

Liebs, A. (2008, Sept. 21). A biography of Louis Braille: His raised-dot language system brought literacy to the blind. Special Needs Education. Retrieved from http://blind-students.suite101.com/article.cfm/a_biography_of_louis_braille

Liebs, A. (2008, Sept. 21). A braille timeline: Braille struggled to become the primary language of the blind. Special Needs Education. Retrieved from http://blind-students.suite101.com/article.cfm/a_braille_timeline

Marsan, C., & Coudert, C. (2009, January). Braille 1809–2009: Writing with six dots and its future–A brief overview. Presentation at international conference at UNESCO headquarters, Paris, France. Retrieved from http://www.avh.asso.fr/rubriques/infos_braille/bicentenaire_louis_braille.php

Rathi, S. (2009). Louis Braille. Retrieved from http://www.eyeway.org/inspires/achievers/louis-braille/?searchterm=Louis%20Braille

Sydenham, S., & Thomas, R. (2009). Louis Braille [Online]. Retrieved from http://www.kidcyber.com.au/topics/Braille.htm?

Weiss, T. C. (2009). Louis Braille–Historical perspectives. Disabled World Disability and Health News. Retrieved from http://www.disabled-world.com/disability/types/vision/louis-braille.php

Image Credits:

Chudler, E.H. (2010). Braille Alpbabet Sheet. Neuroscience for Kids. Retrieved from http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/gif/braille.gif

English-Online. (2008). Louis Braille. Braille – A Language for Blind People. Retrieved from http://www.english-online.at/society/braille/louis_braille.jpg

Louis Braille School. (2008). Stone House. Louis Braille’s Birthplace. Retrieved from http://louisbrailleschool.org/resources-image/stonehouse-2a.jpg

Louis Braille School. (2008). Braille Statue. Louis Braille Monument. Retrieved from http://louisbrailleschool.org/resources-image/brl-statue-r1.jpg

Please cite this information as follows: Hammill, D.D. (2010). Louis Braille (1809–1852). Hammill Institute Preservation Project. Retrieved from http://hammill-institute.org/hipp/?p=58

About admin

The Hammill Institute on Disabilities was organized in 2005 exclusively for charitable, scientific, and educational purposes to enhance the well-being of people with disabilities, their parents, and the professionals who are devoted to their interests. Our website, www.hammill-institute.org, provides information about the Institute's mission and activities. One of the Institute's undertakings is the Hammill Institute Preservation Project (HIPP). An important part of this project is (a) to identify those individuals who made significant contributions to the field of visual impairment between the years 1800 and 1999 and (b) to identify the top issues that have most influenced the field. We created a pool of prominent individuals in each of the various disability fields consisting of journal editors and associate editors, university training faculty, officers and board members of parent and professional organizations, and professionals providing direct service. We then selected individuals from this pool to receive our questionnaire. Once the questionnaires were received and the responses analyzed, short biographies for those people who received the most nominations were prepared. More comprehensive biographies were prepared for the most important. We will also commission papers or monographs dealing with the issues that were identified as most important. The papers may be published in one or more of the Institute's 14 journals and in other relevant publications.
This entry was posted in Biographies and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>