Louis Braille invented the current system in 1824 at the age of 15, but the idea of creating raised dots on paper to be read by fingertips actually came from Charles Barbier a few years earlier, around 1820. He designed night writing, as it was called, for the Napoleonic army so that soldiers could communicate their movements silently. But it didn’t catch on. The symbols were large and too cumbersome to read because he’d used the letters of the alphabet as its basis.
For many years, I mistakenly thought it was the raised bumps that made braille special but it’s actually the six-dot system. With the old method, the symbols produced by the six dots were not only less work to punch but were small enough to fit entirely under one fingertip. Although modern printers and punch machines that print braille have made manual dot-by-dot punching almost obsolete, the symbols made by these machines can still be easily and swiftly maneuvered by a blind person.
In the case of braille, the adage “you create what you know” is its brilliance. Barbier wasn’t blind but Braille was. He created something that he, himself, could understand and use and millions of people are thankful that he was able to “see” beyond his disability.