How a tenacious boy created one of the most life-changing inventions in human history.
by Maria Popova
“Communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness,” Virginia Woolf wrote in contemplating the elemental human need for communication. Indeed, a life deprived of that essential sustenance of the soul, whatever form it may take, is a life of unthinkable tragedy.
No cultural hero has delivered more people of that tragedy than Louis Braille (January 4, 1809–January 6, 1852), who lost his eyesight at the age of three due to an infection following an accident at his father’s workshop, then went on to invent the braille reading and writing system, which forever changed the lives of the blind and the visually impaired. (After his groundbreaking invention, he continued to work tirelessly, developing implementations of braille in mathematics and music, co-creating a precursor of the dot-matrix printing machine, and mastering the cello and the organ, which he played professionally at Parisian churches even as tuberculosis slowly syphoned away his vitality and finally claimed his life at the age of forty-three.)
Helen Keller rightfully compared Braille to Gutenberg, for no other invention since the printing press had transformed the lives of more people who would’ve otherwise lived bereft of the joy and liberation of reading and learning, their basic human need for communication unmet. But although Braille belongs alongside inventors like Tesla and Edison in impact and legacy, one crucial element sets him apart from and perhaps even above them: He was only a child when he developed his revolutionary invention — which means he had no training, no funding, no public or institutional support, no commercial motive or business plan, and only the vision for something life-changing and redemptive born out of the necessity of a disability that had forever changed his own short life.
“In the past several centuries, no one so young has developed something that has had such a lasting and profound effect on so many people,” writes Jen Bryant in Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille (public library) — a wonderful addition to the greatest picture-books about cultural heroes.
Illustrated by the Brooklyn-based Russian artist Boris Kulikov, the empathy-inviting first-person narrative traces young Braille’s immensely inspiring story, beginning with his premature birth, which he survived to be healthy and curious little boy.
But the turning point in his life came when he was three. His father was a leatherer specializing in horse tack in a small town near Paris. One day, while playing at the leather workshop, little Louis disregarded his father’s admonition not to toy with the sharp tools.
Trying to imitate his father, he set out to puncture a piece of leather. But the awl slipped from his tiny hand and stabbed him in the eye.
This was the dawn of the nineteenth century, and medicine as we know it was yet to be born, so although a local healer bandaged the boy’s eye and a Parisian surgeon attempted to save it the next day, the damage was permanent. An infection took root and soon spread to his other eye, leaving little Louis in ongoing agony. By the age of five, he had lost his vision completely.
Because Louis was so young when he became blind, his development of theory of mind had not yet reached the point where children become aware that their internal experience is not the universal state of the world. At first, he thought that the world had sunk into a permanent night — he kept asking his parents where the sun had gone.
Eventually, he realized that it was his own sight that had disappeared and began learning to navigate the world with the senses he had left. His father made him a cane, his brother taught him echolocation, his two sisters made him a straw alphabet, the village priest taught him to recognize trees by their touch and birds by their song, and his mother taught him to play dominoes by counting the dots with his fingertips.
The adults in his life read books to him and he went to school with all the other children, where he excelled despite his blindness. But whenever little Louis asked whether there were any books for blind children, he was met with a lamenting “no.”
A local noblewoman was so touched by his story that she wrote a letter to the Royal Institute for the Blind in Paris, beseeching them to accept him. One day, a letter arrived announcing his admission.
Although his family had reservations about letting the boy, not yet ten, go to the big city alone, his parents placed his happiness and his love of learning above all else and ultimately sent him to Paris.
But when young Louis arrived at the Royal School, he didn’t need to see to know that there was nothing royal about it — the building had been a prison during the French Revolution and the conditions for the young pupils were only marginally better.
My hard bed was in a damp, crowded room. My uniform itched. My meals were small and cold. The teachers were strict. The older boys teased and stole.
Despite his harrowing homesickness, Louis stayed — “because somewhere in this old, moldy building, there were books for the blind.” These books were few and precious, so only the best students were allowed to read them. Louis was determined, then, to become one of the best — and he did.
Finally, the day of his dreams arrived and a book for the blind was placed before him with a ceremonious thud. But to his astonishment, it was a gravely disenchanting experience — the text was written in enormous raised letters, so that the blind reader could trace them with their fingertips. Because each sentence took half a page, the books were short and disappointing.
I sighed. Even if I read a hundred books like this, how much could I learn?
But the dispirited young Louis soon saw a new frontier of hope — the headmaster delivered news that a French army captain had invented a military communication code using patterns of dots to represent sounds. Louis learned to read the patterns, then to write them — using a wooden frame and a metal ruler, and punching the dots with a sharp instrument akin to the awl with which he had blinded himself as a toddler.
But although he practiced tirelessly, he eventually grew frustrated that even a short message required a great many dots. Intuiting that the best way to complain is to improve, Louis set out to devise a better system that would allowed the blind to write like the sighted — one in which the dots represented letters rather than sounds.
In a testament to combinatorial creativity — that marvelous way in which our unconscious shakes the tree of memory for fragments of existing ideas, impressions, and inspirations, and combines them into something new — Louis drew on his childhood memories of his father working on his leather strips with his awl into the night.
Late at night, while the others slept, I bent over my slate and punched the pages. I tried hundreds of ways to simplify the captain’s code. I worked until my back was stiff and my fingers ached. Often, I fell asleep a few minutes before morning.
Time passed — a year, then two — as Louis continued to work on his code. He was frequently ill from the tuberculosis that would eventually take his life, but he labored through his illness, until his writing system was finally ready to be tested: The headmaster read from a library book and Louis took dictation in dots, then read the text back perfectly.
Word of his triumph spread through the school. His system would soon become a major global alphabet. He was fifteen.
Complement it with What Color Is the Wind? — a most unusual serenade to the senses inspired by a blind child — then revisit other wonderful picture-book biographies of cultural icons: Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Paul Gauguin, Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse, Albert Einstein, John Lewis, Paul Erdős, and Nellie Bly.