Communicating by touch: brief story of Braille code


Communicating by touch: brief story of Braille code

30 Dec, 2020

On the occasion of January 4th, the date of birth of Louis Braille, the World Braille Day is celebrated: a system that has completely changed the life of thousands of people with visual disabilities, allowing them to write, read and communicate in writing.

Braille is a writing and reading system for the blind developed by the French inventor Louis Braille during the first half of the 19th century, based on the combination of six points in relief and perceptible by touch: multiple possible combinations, which can correspond to letters of the alphabet, numbers, punctuation marks, mathematical, computer, musical and chemical symbols.

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The World Health Organization estimates that in the world there at least 1 billion people have a near or distance vision impairment, of which 36 million suffer from total blindness.

For blind people, the use of Braille is an essential condition of full autonomy and effective integration into the social, cultural, work and school fabric. In this article we report the history and some curiosities about a system that, two centuries after its birth, still maintains its validity and universality.

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Braille writing is so versatile that it has been used in the use of Lego bricks, wrist watches, Monopoly and countless other games and innovations. In this image, a Rubik’s cube for the blind; each square shows the color in the Braille alphabet.


Before Braille

Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, a small town not far from Paris, on January 4, 1809. At the age of three, in the workshop of his father, a saddler, he injured his left eye; due to the spread of the infection, he also lost sight in his right eye, becoming completely blind.

At the age of 10, young Louis enrolled at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, one of the first institutions in the world for the blind. Here the blind children developed those practical skills (like construction of chairs and shoes) that would allow them to find employment.

At the same time, the boys present in the Institute were taught to read with the Haüy method (named after the school’s founder): the approach consisted of reading, using touch, the letters printed in continuous line, obtained by pressing a copper wire on one side of the paper to form a relief on the other.


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A tip from the war front

During the war campaigns, Charles Barbier de La Serre, former captain of the French Army, had invented the “night writing, a system to allow soldiers to communicate even in complete darkness. This type of writing was based on a tactile code that reproduced words based on sounds using a system of twelve raised points, combined with each other.


In 1821 Barbier decided to have his invention tested by the students of the Institute. Despite the rather complex and impractical system, the experiment was welcomed with enthusiasm and interest by the young students: among them Braille, who began a correspondence with Barbier.

Compared to Haüy’s continuous line, Barbier’s idea of ​​using raised dots was undoubtedly an innovation: Braille sensed that the laborious method hid a value that could provide, for him and his companions, a simple and rational writing system.

As a teenager, he experimented with different systems and combinations until he found one based on only six combined points. He had created the Braille alphabetical code, which has remained virtually unchanged until today: 6 points specially positioned within an ideal rectangle and a space corresponding to that of the tip of the index finger. Later he extended the method also to mathematics (Nemeth Braille) and to music (Music Braille Code).

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Some bars of a score, reported in Braille musical code. Photo credit: Music Braille Code (out of copyright). Detail of page 172. Public domain.


Braille, a worldwide standard system

In order to make known the writing he invented, he published in 1829 the book “Procedure for Writing Words, Music, and Plainsong in Dots”.

Despite the simplicity of the method, the Braille code met with hostility by several teachers, including the Director of the Institute of the Blind, fearful that students could use it to send messages that he would not be able to decipher.

Unfortunately Braille did not manage to enjoy the recognition of his invention: the French government approved the system only in 1854 (two years after Braille’s death, which probably occurred from tuberculosis). In 1858, representatives of most European countries met at the World Congress for the Blind, voting make Braille the standard system of reading and writing around the world.

On the occasion of the centennial of his death in 1952, the remains of Braille were exhumed from the modest cemetery of Coupvray to be buried with great honors at the Panthéon in Paris.


An "inclusive" font: Braille Neue

Designed by the Japanese designer Kosuke Takahashi in view of the Olympic and Paralympic Games that should have been held in Tokyo (postponed to 2021 due to Covid-19), Braille Neue is an innovative font that combines the relief of writing for the blind with the shape of traditional letters.

It involves the use of dots, used in multiple combinations to be identified with the fingertips, in association with the reference letter represented in perfect correspondence; the font is readable by everyone, even partially sighted and blind, without the need to use two separate texts.

In public places the Braille characters often need dedicated spaces; explains Takahashi: “Braille Neue has the possibility of being integrated in public places in a new way, but also of overlapping the existing signage, completing it. It is easy to implement and is a springboard for a sustainable and inclusive future”.

The font already exists in two versions: “Braille Neue Standard” with Latin characters and “Braille Neue Outline” with Japanese ideograms. The designer'’ goal is to propose a universally accessible transversal communication method.

Written by

Eufemia Serena Putortì
Eufemia Serena Putortì

A graduated in Medical, Molecular and Cellular Biotechnology at UniSR, since 2017 she has been the contact person for Science Communication in the same University. Always enthusiastic and curious about science, she soon realized that her greatest passion is to communicate it with an accessible, albeit scientifically rigorous, language. She is the creator and curator of the divulgative scientific blog “UniScience&Research” and of numerous University Public Engagement activities, which create opportunities for encounter and mutual learning between researchers and society. Her favorite audience: children, tireless explorers of the world and genuine “why?” experts.

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