A New Method

A New Method: The Story of Louis Braille

Chapter 4. A New Method

Charles Barbier, a captain in the army, had developed a way for soldiers to communicate silently in the dark by means of raised dots and dashes on thin cardboard. Certain arrangements of dots and dashes, which could be felt with the fingers, meant “advance,” “general withdrawal,” and other commands. He called his system “night writing.”

Captain Barbier made changes to night writing and developed a method that he thought could be used by the blind. He renamed it Sonography and presented it to Dr. Pignier, director of the Royal Institute for Blind Youth.

At first the students were excited about the possibilities of Sonography and eagerly set out to learn it, but the problems of the system soon became apparent. Sonography was complicated to learn and difficult to use. It was based on sounds and did not provide for spelling, punctuation, capital letters, or numbers. Many dots were required to represent a single word.

Captain Barbier’s system had many faults, but it inspired thirteen-year-old Louis Braille to experiment with raised dots as the basis of a special alphabet for the blind. Louis worked every spare minute on his raised dot method, often late into the night, and sometimes all night. He was fifteen years old when he completed his alphabet. It consisted of various arrangements of raised dots within a six dot pattern, combined with short dashes.

Louis continued experimenting. He adapted his raised dot method so it could be used to write music. In 1829, when he was twenty years old, he published a little book with a long title: Method of Writing Words, Music and Plainsong by Means of Dots for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them. This booklet explained for the first time the reading and writing method that would be known throughout the world as braille.

Louis’ raised dot method was enthusiastically adopted by the students at the Institute. Dr. Pignier recognized the genius of the system and encouraged Louis in every way he could. Sighted teachers and officials, however, were slow to accept the new method and actively fought against its use. It wasn’t until 1844, eight years before Louis Braille died, that the value of the raised dot alphabet was officially recognized.

Next: Chapter 5. The Teacher