Frenchman Louis Braille (breyl) was born on January 4, 1809. He is most famous for the eponymous system of reading and writing for the blind. He was blinded in a childhood accident and developed the system of raised dots that transformed the lives of millions. His father made tack for horses and Louis was injured at the age of 3 when playing with an awl in the workshop. The damaged eye couldn’t be saved and the infection spread to his other eye. By the age of 5, he was totally blind.
He went to the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (school for blind children) in Paris. The school had few resources and the children were taught the Haüy system of reading raised Latin letters, invented by the school’s founder. The books available were extremely limited in number and the children couldn’t write their own documents. His dad created an alphabet out of thick leather so Louis could trace each letter in order to write home. An encounter with the system used by the French army led to what we know as braille – raised dots pressed into heavy paper. Two amazing facts – he used an awl to make the impressions – the same kind that blinded him – and he was only 15 when he perfected the system.
Braille had a tremendous ear for music and became a proficient cellist and church organist. He later adapted braille for musical notation. Ironically, braille for reading and writing was not embraced by his school and they continued to use the Haüy system. Once Braille exhausted all that the school could teach him, he was hired as a teacher. He died on January 6, 1852 at only 43 years of age as a result of a persistent respiratory weakness.
Today’s expression, la pierre de touche (lay pea-air duh toosh) means “the stone of touch” or the touch-stone or acid test. The acid test for Braille isn’t the fact that his system for reading by touch wasn’t readily adopted by his own school, but that people are still using it 200 years later.