January 4

1809, 1965

The beginning of this page is in Braille, to celebrate Louis, its inventor's, birthday, today in 1809... and I also cannot resist noting that T.S Eliot died today in 1965, and wondering if we are now entitled to ask, or simply imagine, "qu'il soit mort, content?" Or at least "qu'il fût content, mon semblable, mon frère"? I will return to that question later on this page.

Braille lost his eyesight in a childhood accident at his parents' farm in Coupvray, about twenty miles east of Paris, where his father also had a leather workshop. Playing with some of dad's tools one day of his third year, he tried to punch a hole with an awl in a piece of leather, but the awl slipped, and scratched his eye, which became infected, and then the infection spread to the other eye. By the time he was five he was effectively blind. But he was also a good student, who worked by remembering what he could not write down, and when the Royal Institute for Blind Youth (later renamed the National Institute for Blind Youth) was opened in Paris in 1819, Braille was one of its first students.

The method of instruction there was proto-Braille. The institute's founder, Valentin Haüy, who was not himself blind, had created a small library of books (three actually, but "small library" sounds so much better and is certainly not untrue) on very heavy and embossed paper, using Latin letters that were imprinted slightly raised, so that students could trace the letters with their fingers, and thereby read the words. It was desperately slow, and extremely limited, and worse still, you could read these letters and words, but you could not write your own. Which meant you couldn't send letters home, and Louis Braille's parents expected letters. 

The solution was found by the father, not the son. Much in the style that you will find in any good Kindergarten today, and many a pre-K too, Simon-René took pieces of leather, wrapped them around copper wire for solidity, and shaped them into the outlines of letters; all Louis had to do was keep them organised, feel around them to check he had the right one, and then trace around the shape to write the letter. Between his teacher's three books and his father's fifty-two letters, a system of reading and writing based on touch was in existence; primitive and cumbersome - somebody, but I can't remember who, once summed it up perfectly by calling it "talking to the fingers in the language of the eyes" - but in existence.

After graduating, Braille was hired by the Institute as a teacher of History, Geometry, and Algebra, for which, presumably, he had his father make sets of numbers out of leather and copper wire. Like many blind people, he had learned to compensate for one disability by developing another beyond the norm, playing the cello, and especially the organ, with such proficiency he could teach those too, performed in churches throughout France, and in later life added to his Institute Professorship the prestigious role of organist at Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs in Paris, from 1834 to 1839, and later the even more prestigious Church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul. Zero Positive!

Braille was not, however, an inventor; much more he was a developer of other people's ideas. First his teacher, then his father; next, in 1821, from a newspaper article read to him by a friend, the system of "night writing" just invented by one Captain Charles Barbier for the French Army, a code made up of dots and dashes impressed on thick paper, an early form of Morse in fact, but using Haüy's blocks. Barbier was interested in soldiers being able to share information on the battlefield without having light or needing to speak, but darkness on a battlefield is really no different from darkness anywhere if you are blind. What, until technology made Morse practical, was unusable by the army, gave Braille the third vital component of his system. Braille should really be called Haüy-Braille-Barbier, but it would take too many pieces of leather-and-copper wire, and far too many dots, to write that!

I failed to point out, entirely deliberately, that Braille was only twelve when he came upon Barbier's system. Over the next three years he simplified it by reducing the twelve raised dots to just six, and placing them in regular columns, so that any letter could be identified with a single touch of a finger, and written inside a box created by the finger and thumb of the other hand. He published it in 1829, understood from the generally positive reviews that there were still flaws, and republished in 1837 with all the dashes removed, as per the illustration above, and, perhaps even more importantly, with the thumb-and-finger box replaced - it needed an awl to make it - by a slate (the modern graphic tablet used with computers functions in precisely the same way) with two metal strips across it.

Braille was also a victim of tuberculosis. By the time he was forty he was too sick to continue working, and spent most of the last three years of his life in the Infirmary at the Institute, where he died on January 6th 1852. The Braille method was formally adopted by the Institute in 1854, including the Braille system of musical notation and the Braille system of numbers. By 1882 the system had become universal everywhere in the world save only America (the extraordinary work of Helen Keller and her perhaps even more extraordinary teacher Anne Sullivan, were the reasons why Braille was not adopted in the USA until the 1930s). 

And yes, in this technological age, there is now Cyber-Braille. Braille keyboards, speech synthesisers of the sort that Stephen Hawkings has made famous, RoboBraille as an alternative form of email, Nemeth for the mathematical side of Braille, and of course the Voice Recognition technology that all of us use has its Braille version. There is also an app - BrailleTouch - for typing in braille on your touchscreen, and a very simple-to-use Braille Translator, which I have used below to write my name:

"lilacs out of the dead land"
I mentioned T.S. Eliot earlier, and noted the coincidence of birth and death dates, and did so by quoting him, and in French, because those two connections were irresistible as well. Eliot developed "Some Thoughts On Braille" in "The New Outlook for the Blind", published by the American Foundation for the Blind in December 1952 - you can read the piece here, but they do ask you to subscribe. The only place I can find excerpts without paying is Wikipedia's entry for Braille, which includes this: 

"Perhaps the most enduring honor to the memory of Louis Braille is the half-conscious honor we pay him by applying his name to the script he invented – and, in this country [England], adapting the pronunciation of his name to our own language. We honor Braille when we speak of braille. His memory has in this way a security greater than that of the memories of many men more famous in their day."

In the same way that Captain Boycott, or the river Meander in Turkey, or the concept Kafkaesque, have become part of language. Was Eliot hoping, when he said this, that he would enter history in the same way. A very Eliotish, Eliotesque, Eliotian idea - it doesn't really work, does it?

 "Other echoes inhabit the garden too, but garlic and sapphires in the mud clot the bedded axle-tree, reconciled among the stars. Only through time is time conquered."

(The plaque can be found at 3 Kensington Court Gardens, Kensington and Chelsea, W8; the lines here are from "Burnt Norton", in "Four Quartets"; the ones at the top of the page are from Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs de Mal", quoted by Eliot in "The Wasteland")

Amber pages

And on the same date, the deaths of three other of my many heroes:

the founder of Reform Judaism, Moses Mendelsohn, in 1786

the French writer and thinker Albert Camus, in 1960

and the Italian writer Carlo Levi, who stopped forever in Eboli in 1975

Less likely to receive an extended essay on these pages, but worth the mention, Jacob Grimm, author of the some of the grimmest fairy tales, was born today in 1785

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