Valentin Haüy

A New Method: The Story of Louis Braille

Chapter 1. Valentin Haüy

On a Sunday afternoon in September of 1771, Valentin Haüy, a well-dressed, respectable middle-class man of about twenty-five, strolled along the busy streets of Paris. He entered a popular eating establishment and took a table close to the stage to enjoy the afternoon’s entertainment. The performance that day changed his life.

Ten blind people dressed in ridiculous gowns and dunce hats, with oversized cardboard glasses fastened to their faces, formed a make-believe orchestra. They scraped away on musical instruments that they did not know how to play–violins, cellos, basses–while the crowd made fun of them and shouted rude comments. Valentin Haüy felt a deep compassion for those people whose eyes could not see, and he could not forget them.

Several years later, Valentin Haüy gave a few coins to a young blind boy begging near a church in Paris. The boy was thin, cold, and dressed in rags; his name was François Leseuer. Mr. Haüy observed the way François felt the raised markings on the coins and had an idea. Why couldn’t books be written with the letters raised as they are on coins? Then people who could not see with their eyes could read with their fingers.

Mr. Haüy took François off the street. He gave him food, shelter, and as much money as he would have received begging. Using wooden blocks with letters and numbers carved on them, he slowly taught François to read.

From that time on, Valentin Haüy dedicated his life and his resources to the education of blind children. He developed a way to print books with raised letters that could be read with the fingers. Toward the end of 1784, he opened the world’s first school for blind children in Paris. The children lived, studied, and worked at the school. One of the first teachers was François Leseuer. The school attracted the attention of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the king and queen of France. They invited Mr. Haüy to bring some of his blind students to the palace at Versailles on December 26, 1786, to demonstrate their reading ability. The king and queen were impressed with the children’s accomplishment, and the school became known as the Institution Royale des Juenes Aveugles (Royal Institute for Blind Youth).

During the French Revolution, the Royal Institute for Blind Youth was taken over by the State. Valentin Haüy was forced to give up his position as director of the Institute. He left France and traveled to Russia. While there, he accepted an invitation from Czar Alexander I to establish Russia’s first school for the blind at St. Petersburg.

Mr. Haüy’s work became known throughout Europe. During his lifetime, schools for blind children were organized in England, Austria, Germany, Holland, Russia, Switzerland, and Denmark.

Valentin Haüy did not return to Paris until 1817.

Next: Chapter 2. Louis Braille