A Bit About Braille

Louis Braille

Here at the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), we frequently receive questions about braille and topics related to it. What follows is an attempt to answer many, if not most, of these questions and to give an overview of both the history of braille--and the means by which it is produced.

Braille is the raised dot system for reading and writing used by blind people all over the world. It takes its name from Louis Braille, its French inventor, who was born in the town of Couvray, France, in 1809. He was the son of a blacksmith.

At the age of three, he injured one of his eyes with an awl. (This is a sharp, pointed instrument used by blacksmiths and harness makers to punch holes in leather.) In time, Louis's other eye lost its sight through infection.

Braille's education began at home, where he was taught by a local priest who thought him to be very bright. In due time, he was sent to Paris to begin his formal education. There he studied at the Institute Valentine Hauy--a school named for its founder, who established it in 1784, five years before the French revolution.

Before Hauy, little or no attention was paid to educating blind people. How did Homer, the blind poet of ancient Greece, set his words to papyrus or parchment? Nobody knows for certain, but most likely, he dictated his words to scribes who wrote them down.

Those books used at the Institute Valentine Hauy were raised print books. Ordinary letters were stamped into paper, so their outlines could be felt. Reading by this method was slow; and because this "touchable printing" was done on large presses, the individual student could only read. He or she had no way of writing down his or her thoughts.

Some time after going to Paris, Louis Braille learned about a method of writing in the dark. Actually, this was a code developed by a French army major, Charles Barbier, that was made up of raised dots that formed letters and other expressions. Messages written in this code could be circulated to soldiers in the field at night.

As a military code, Barbier's night writing was a failure. However, it was the spark that set Braille to thinking about how the code could be adapted for use by the blind. Barbier's code was made up of a pattern of twelve dots. Braille reduced the number of dots in the pattern from twelve to six. Braille, as we know it today, still uses the six-dot pattern developed by Braille.

Every braille character, no matter the language in which it is written, is written in a unit of space called a "cell." The braille cell is two dots across and three dots high. This means that within a single braille cell, 64 possible combinations are possible, including the blank space.

The genius of Louis Braille's writing system is that it placed in the hands of blind people the means to write and read. The writing instrument he developed is much like those in use today for writing braille by hand. It is made of two metal plates that are hinged together. The front, or top plate, has rectangular windows cut into it. The back, or bottom plate, has little cups set out in patterns of two across and three high. In the United States, this part of the braille writing system is called a "slate." In Britain, it is called a "frame."

To use this device, paper is placed between the two plates of the slate and held in place by pins. The writer uses a small pointed object (much like the blacksmith's awl that blinded Braille) to press dots downward through the windows in the top plate into the cups in the bottom plate.

For convenience when teaching braille, each dot within the braille cell is numbered. To write braille, one writes in a right to left direction. One begins a line at the right end and works toward the left. The dots are pressed in a downward direction. Then, when writing is done, the sheet of paper is turned over and reading is done from left to right.

In the writing position, the three dots at the right half of the cell are numbered 1, 2 and 3 from top to bottom. Dots 4, 5 and 6 are the upper, middle and lowest dots in the left half of the cell. When the paper is turned over so it can be read, dots 1, 2 and 3 are on the left--and dots 4, 5 and 6 are on the right. While this may seem confusing, it is a system to which learners seem to adapt with relative ease.

Originally, because Braille was a musician, he designed his system to enable blind people to set down music scores. It was sometime later that he and his fellow students at the Institute Valentine became aware of its possibilities for ordinary writing. Despite this fact, braille did not become a main stream system; rather, it was discouraged by school authorities, which meant that those who were interested in learning it, had to study in secret after regular school hours. It was not until 1854--two years after Braille's death, that his system of raised dot reading and writing was adopted officially at his own school (where he eventually became a teacher)!

If you were to look at a sheet of text written in braille, it might seem like a meaningless jumble of dots. It would look nothing like raised printed letters. In fact, it is a very logical system. The letters a through j are written using the upper two thirds of the braille cell; that is dots 1, 2, 4 and 5. The letters k through t repeat this same pattern, except that dot 3 is added to each of the a through j letters to form the k through t set.

The letters u, v, x, y and z are the same as a, b, c, d and e--except that both dots 3 and 6 fill in the bottom of the cell. You might ask why does the letter w not fit in here? This is because the letter w didn't exist in French in Braille's time. It is found in position 40 in the chart of the order of dot patterns within the braille cell.

While braille is a logical system, it also is bulky. In "Standard English Braille," four braille characters take up one horizontal inch. Five lines of braille require two inches of vertical space. For this reason--and to place maximum information under the fingers of the braille reader--many languages have developed contracted forms of braille. In English, the system is called "Grade Two Braille" or "Braille Grade Two". With ordinary uncontracted braille, which is known as "Braille Grade One," the word "internationally" takes fifteen character spaces. In Braille Grade Two, this number is reduced to eight. In general, Braille Grade Two takes about 28-30% less space than does Braille Grade One.

Braille characters often have to do multiple duty. The letters a through j also serve as the digits for one through zero. When this is the intention, a symbol called a number sign is written in front of a letter, or group of letters, to show they don't stand for letters, but rather, that they are intended to be read as numbers. Take the number sign away from 3122175, for example, and you will have the word cabbage. Another symbol is used to show that the letter following it is a capital (upper case) letter.

Before the braille system of reading and writing made its way to the United States by the middle of the 19th century, raised print was used in this country. Boston Line Type was a form of this printing. In its museum, the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) has samples of this early form of writing that was used to produce schoolbooks for blind students.

The braille slate or frame has changed little in the past century and a half. Whereas a pen or pencil can be used to write on any size sheet of paper, braille slates and paper sizes are related. There is a slate designed to mark playing cards and another for 3 by 5 cards. There is a German slate that covers an entire page. Most slates are four lines wide--and from 19 to 41cells long.

In the mid-1800s, interest in the education of blind people had spread its way to this side of the Atlantic. From 1829 to 1831, schools to educate blind children were established in Boston, Philadelphia and New York. In about 1852, seven southern states began to pool their resources to provide text materials for the education of blind children. In 1858, the American Printing House for the Blind was established. It was based at the Kentucky Asylum for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky.

During the Civil War, the education of blind people suffered along with other aspects of society. At war's end, reconstruction also saw a revival in the area--when a system of raised dot writing was introduced in this country. Cleverly, it was known as "American Braille." Meanwhile, at the New York Institute for the Blind, a system of dot writing called "New York Point" was developed. American Braille used Louis Braille's six-dot cell pattern, while New York Point was based on a pattern that was two dots high, but of variable length (usually up to eight).

Until the early 1890s, braille was written either on a slate--or produced by huge presses that were located at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts--or at the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1892, Frank Hall, superintendent of the Illinois School for the Blind, invented the Hall Braillewriter. This machine resembled a typewriter--in that it had a moving carriage that traveled along in a right to left direction as braille was written.

With this machine and its successor, the Perkins Brailler (1952), braille dots were pressed upward from the under side of the page. The braillewriter had seven keys for writing-- six keys to produce the individual dots, and a space key. Keys were arranged in a straight line with keys for dots 1, 2 and 3 going outward to the left of the space key. The keys for dots 4, 5 and 6 were to the right of the space key. With the braillewriter, dots for a single letter or other characters were pressed all at once; whereas, with the braille slate, each dot was pressed individually. So, the braille slate can be thought of as a braille pencil, while the braillewriter is more like a braille typewriter.

In the early part of the 20th century, much of the braille read by blind school children was produced on presses--or transcribed by hand by volunteer braille transcribers. These dedicated individuals often used braille slates to produce their work. Shellac was applied to the backside of pages to strengthen the dots and prevent early wear.

With the coming of the smaller, lighter Perkins Brailler in 1952, much braille was produced by transcribing groups located throughout the country. For a time, the work of a transcriber was limited to a single copy. Then, in the mid-1950s, the THERMOFORM machine was developed.

To use this machine, a sheet of paper is first placed into the thermoform chamber. A sheet of special plastic, called "brailon," is laid on top of the paper sheet. Then, air is pumped out of the chamber and heat is applied. The plastic softens and forms a tight skin over the paper master copy. So close is this fit that the plastic sheet becomes a copy of the master. With this machine, a transcriber could produce a master copy which could be multiplied twenty or thirty times.

In 1968, IBM Corporation introduced its Braille Electric Typewriter. This machine was a typewriter with a full keyboard. With it, a typist with no knowledge of braille was able to produce perfectly readable braille copy in Braille Grade One. The machine itself was capable of producing Grade Two Braille, but to do so, the typist must know which keys to press to produce the special contraction symbols. The Braille Electric Typewriter was a break through in communication; however, it did not last very long. By the late-1970s, it was replaced by computer-driven equipment.

In the 1960s, IBM and the American Printing House for the Blind teamed up to use computer power to produce braille textbooks. The actual dots-on-paper part of the operation still was done with large presses. At about this same time, line embossing devices were being introduced. These were relatively fast braille printers that could emboss 120 lines of text in a minute.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, home computers emerged--and it was just a matter of time before someone produced computer software capable of translating text typed into a computer into Braille Grade Two. The job of translation software is to examine a block of text and rearrange it into those symbols needed for Braille Grade Two. Earlier, we considered the word "internationally" and its Grade Two equivalent. The job of the translation software was to examine the word "internationally" and change it into "9that}n,n,y".

If the home computer was to be used for the production of braille, a missing link had to be forged in the 'braille chain.' That link would become a small, low volume, slow speed personal braille embosser. In 1981, T. V. Cranmer, Director of the Technical Services Unit of the Kentucky Department for the Blind, undertook the development of a modified Perkins Braillewriter that could respond to signals from a computer. The engineering of this work was begun by Taylor Davidson and completed by Wayne Thompson. The success of this effort caused many commercial manufacturers to produce personal braille printers of their own.

Meanwhile, during the 1970s, work was being done on transitory or refreshable displays. To this point, we have been talking about braille dots on paper. Such braille is static--or frozen--if you will. The raised dots on paper to be read by touch compare, in effect, to ink marks on paper to be read by sight.

Transitory or refreshable braille is formed by having pins, or the ends of reeds, pop up in the patterns of braille characters. When a block of text is read, a signal is sent that causes it to disappear and to be replaced by another block of text. This signal can be the press of a button--or a signal from a computer. Again, if you will, the pins that pop up to form refreshable braille characters can be likened to the pixels on a computer screen which change as needed.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, the VersaBraille was a commercial product equipped with a refreshable braille display. Its seven key keyboard was like that of a braillewriter. It used audiocassettes to store data. The equivalent of 200 pages of braille could be stored on a single, 60-minute cassette.

Within a year of the development of the Kentucky Modified Perkins Brailler, the Kentucky Department for the Blind began development of a device called the Kentucky PortaBraille. This device was an outgrowth of the electronic circuitry of the modified Perkins Brailler. Fred Gissoni, who took charge of Kentucky's Technology Service Unit after succeeding T. V. Cranmer, developed the concepts and keyboard command structure for the devise; and Wayne Thompson did the engineering for the project. In turn, these Kentucky prototypes led to the development of small, light, and compact note-taking equipment such as the Braille 'n Speak, the Type 'n Speak and the Braille Lite--with all being quite powerful despite their small size.

With devices such as these, blind people can use braille writing skills to do school homework, write letters, lists, recipes, send and receive e-mail, write computer programs and much more. Though the nature of braille will probably change in the years ahead, it still offers a powerful tool to educate and inform blind people. And while its form may change from paper to refreshable braille, it still relies on the six-dot pattern developed by Louis Braille more than 150 years ago.

I'm going to give a presentation on how to read braille. Do you know of anything I could use as handouts?

APH Alphabet Card Folder

APH Alphabet Card Folder (50-pack)

Designed to raise the awareness of braille among print readers, this card displays the braille alphabet, a sample of large type, and provides a brief history of APH. Folds in half vertically. Sold in packs of fifty. As an educational service, up to five individual cards are available free on request by phone. Note: Not available on Quota.

Catalog Number: 1-04000-01
Click this link to purchase the APH Alphabet Card Folder (50-pack).

Braille Alphabet and Numbers Card

Braille Alphabet and Numbers Cards

Intended to increase the awareness of braille among print readers, this card presents the alphabet, numbers, and limited punctuation signs in braille and in regular type. A simple sentence in uncontracted braille is included, allowing for translation practice. 100 per package. Not available free. Note: Not available on Quota.

Catalog Number: 1-04020-00
Click this link to purchase the Braille Alphabet and Numbers Cards. American Printing House for the Blind, Inc.
1839 Frankfort Avenue
Mailing Address: P.O. Box 6085
Louisville, Kentucky 40206-0085
Toll Free: 800-223-1839
Phone: 502-895-2405
Fax: 502-899-2274
E-mail: info@aph.org
Web site: http://www.aph.org
APH Shopping Home: http://shop.aph.org


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