Helen Keller holding a book in braille, while she stands in front of two large bookshelves filled with braille volumes

See the full typewritten essay, Braille, the Magic Wand of the Blind, in the Helen Keller Archive


"Braille, the Magic Wand of the Blind"

If we should look for the greatest benefactor of the sightless — the individual who has given them a perpetual source of delight and profit, the choice would certainly fall upon Louise (sic) Braille.

Not a century ago this humble blind Frenchman, a pupil of the Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris, waved a magic wand which opened a new way for the sightless to knowledge and mental delight. Today on the anniversary of his discovery, we who are without sight celebrate gratefully the achievement of one who poured the sweetness of tangible printed words into the bitter waters of our affliction.

Such a significant event should not pass unnoticed; the longest forward stride in the progress of the blind is the invention of Louise (sic) Braille. Without the word, visible or tangible, there can be no education. When one thinks of the sufferings of the sightless in all countries before they could read, one does not wonder that it is said in the Bible, "In the beginning the Word was with God, .... and the Word was the Light of men."

It was obvious from the beginning that if the blind were to be educated a method must be devised by which they would read and study like the seeing. Louis Braille invented the embossed system which has ever since borne his name and which enables the blind to read and write easily with their fingers. His magic wand was a group of six dots in which the vertical line consists of three dots, and the horizontal of two. The combination of these dots in all kinds of positions produces characters to each of which we assign a particular meaning, just as the seeing do to the characters of ink print.

For instance, the two dots at the top of the oblong represent C, the upper and lower dots on the left side stand for K, and the addition of the other upper dot to K changes it to M, (sic) It is amazing how six dots can be so combined to represent so many things — letters, marks of punctuation, signs, numerals, a musical notation and accents in foreign languages.

Braille's invention was as marvellous (sic) as any fairy tale. Only six dots! Yet when he touched a blank sheet of paper, lo! it became alive with words that sparkled in the darkness of the blind! Only six dots! Yet he made them vibrate with harmonies that charmed away their lonely hours! Only six dots! Yet the magic of his genius gave them the power of mighty vehicles of thought! With them he captured words that sing and dance with the joy of life — words that sigh and moan — words burning with holy fire, words that weave bonds of companionship between those who cannot see and those who can, words that bring to us the dawn, the rainbow and the splendor of sunset skies, words that, like swift ships, bear us far away from the monotony of blindness, the trivial incidents of time and place and the pain of thwarted effort! So long as the memory of brave men is cherished in the world, there shall be warm gratitude to Louis Braille who, himself blind, was a light to stumbling feet along the paths of knowledge and intelligence.

1829-1929 — what a strange story, what a long, slow journey for the blind from the first clumsy attempts at reading a type resembling that of ink print to the Braille books now within their reach! How many men and women today are trying to increase this supply of Braille literature on all subjects where a century ago one blind man stood up and pleaded with well intentioned but blundering teachers to abandon the difficult Roman Line type and adopt the more readable Braille system! Today thousands of sightless people learn Braille where a hundred years ago it had to be taught to a few almost surreptitiously and out of school hours. In order to understand more fully the importance of Braille's work, it may be well to go back to the beginning and give a brief history of embossed types for the blind. It is a history of incredible obstacles, tireless experimenting and queer misconceptions of blindness and the problems arising from it.

The seeing person who knows anything about the blind knows that they employ a tactile system of reading and writing. It is not, as many imagine, a system of signs or shorthand and it is a print in which the letters, punctuation marks and abbreviations are composed of dots combined in different positions. It is called Braille. Braille is almost universally used by the reading blind, but when the education system of the blind began in 1784, the first method of printing books for them was a system of characters resembling the Latin alphabet — the Roman Line Letter Type. Valentin Haüy, the first educator of the blind, discovered this method accidentally, while watching the process of the ordinary press. He observed that sheets fresh from the press and printed only on one side showed the letters in rather sharp relief, and he at once set about enlarging the characters for the fingers, and having them printed the reverse of the usual type, so that they would read from left to right on the sheet. He reasoned that, since the characters could be felt, the only thing needed was to enlarge them so that the blind could distinguish them by touch. Accordingly, in his first experiment, he simply had the types reversed and made larger, with the result that the letters read from left to right on the sheet. He did not ask what kind of characters could be most easily read with the fingers, and this was his initial mistake. He laid down the fundamental principle that we must establish all possible contacts between the blind and the seeing, and he pushed his idea to the extent of insisting that the letters of their alphabets should be similar in appearance, forgetting that it is not really the eye nor the finger that reads, but the brain.

Language, in its orthographic form as we are accustomed to use it in writing and printing, is addressed to sight, but it can also be addressed to the touch through points, and any one can learn to read it as easily as he can read the printed page.

There is no difference between the way the blind and the seeing read except that the blind use one nerve-channel while the seeing use another. One of the fallacies among people who see about those who cannot see is that as soon as the sense of sight is lost, an exquisite touch is developed. Every human being has a natural sense of touch; but the great majority do not train it to any considerable extent. Only a fortunate few possess a sensitive touch to start with when they are blinded, and strange to say, a man whose hand is hardened by manual labor is as likely to have this advantage as another whose fingers are more delicate.

Many seeing people have learned Braille so as to be able to write their blind friends letters they could read themselves. A letter always seems more to belong to me if I can read it than it does when someone reads it to me. As for the benefit which the seeing derive from it, Sir Arthur Pearson, who could see until late in life, and who founded St. Dunstan's Hostel for Blinded Soldiers and Sailors in London, said, "Learning to read by a new method undoubtedly helps a man to do many other things in unaccustomed ways. I would go so far as to say that it would well repay a man to learn Braille even if he were never to read a line of a Braille book, of so much value is the exercise and stimulus it gives to the mental faculties."

Hauy's method was spread rapidly from Paris to Great Britain, Germany, Austria and America. It was hailed as a path to deliverance for the blind; but the rejoicing gave way to disappointment when it was discovered that from one-third to one-half of the blind in the schools could not decipher Haüy's Line Letter.

The chief defect of his method was that he used curved forms, which the blind reader finds extremely difficult. Size was his first consideration, not shape. He did not know that the more elaborate a raised letter is, the less easy it is for the blind to recognize, or that the finger detects sharp angles much more quickly than curves, or that points like the period are perceived very clearly.

Countless modifications of Haüy's Line Letter were attempted in France, England and other countries with the object of discovering a more legible type; but none of them was successful, as is shown by the rapidity with which they were tested and thrown aside. Only one linear type has survived to this day — the angular Moon Type, invented by an Englishman, William Moon. This is a very large and distinct print adapted to the fingers of the adult blind, who need something to practice their touch on before they learn Braille.

So obvious was the failure of these early systems that in 1832 the Scottish Art Society offered a gold medal for the most practical method of embossing for the sightless. Fifteen typographic systems made their appearance, in which angular forms predominated, and there was one which somewhat resembled the dot system of our day. In spite of the fact that points are distinguished more readily than lines, the jury of awards decided upon the Alston form of line type.

It requires a philosophic spirit to understand this apparently foolish disregard of the most workable way to overcome the handicap of blindness. The jury had a sincere desire to keep the blind and the seeing as close together as might be in their reading and writing and in all the activities of life. Besides, little was known about the sense of touch in those days. Educators and inventors were under the delusion that the loss of vision renders the other senses far keener and more alert. They supposed that what looked good to the eye would with modifications be equally acceptable to the fingers. Among the many who advanced theories concerning the blind, Diderot alone pointed out that while they may acquire the same amount of knowledge as the seeing, their processes of acquiring it would probably be quite different. He wrote his famous essay on the blind about the year 1749; but his wise words fell upon barren soil. Those who took an interest in the handicapped were governed by tradition and custom. Independent thought and action were not encouraged. There was no philosophy of life which took into account the need of modifying principles so as to meet the requirements of peculiarly situated human beings. Pragmatism had not taken its place in the life of society.

These facts enable us to realize in some measure what a formidable task it was to establish a system of arbitrarily formed point characters like Braille as a part of the blind man's life equipment. In 1819 Charles Barbier, a Frenchman with a rare combination of good eyes and good sense, invented a dot system which the genius of Louis Braille, a sightless man, brought to perfection. Braille was a student at the Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris, and the dot system has borne his name ever since. The vast superiority of Braille to all line types in embossing and in facility of writing was at once perceived by the teachers and pupils; but for some reason the authorities of the Institution insisted upon the continued use of line types.

For many years Braille remained comparatively obscure in the city of its origin, and it was still a harder fight for recognition in other countries, especially in Great Britain and America. Almost unnoticed and nearly always through blind persons who learned it, the system came to be known and approved outside of Paris. It was not recognized as the standard type for the blind in England until 1869, and even then the institutions were slow in discarding the other systems.

As Braille progressed little by little it encountered three rivals — mighty dragons breathing fire and smoke. The first was the Roman Line which Dr. Howe, Director of the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, had improved for his young sightless pupils. His faith that "obstacles were things to overcome" inspired them with a determination to master even the Line Letter; and he turned out books so rapidly that soon he had the largest and finest embossed library in the world. Every school for the blind in the United States used them, and no others were to be had. The second rival of Braille was New York Point which made its appearance some time before 1868. The third was another modification called American Braille.

Each system had its zealous adherents, and the controversy as to which should be generally used was long and fierce. It did great harm because it interfered with the discussion of other important matters connected with the blind, and increased the cost of embossing books and music. The money appropriated by the Government to emboss books had to be used for all types. The same books, which were expensive enough printed once, had to be duplicated in the different types for different institutions. The long, fierce struggle between the advocates of Line Letter, New York Point and American Braille was a repetition on a small scale of the fight that goes on daily between realists and idealists, radicals and conservative, science and superstition. It was a pitiable spectacle in which friends of the blind became foes when they should have worked together toward a common end — a beautiful service to a most handicapped group of their fellowmen.

But there was one influential friend of the sightless who put service before theory or controversy. It was the generosity of Mr. M.C. Migel, President of the American Foundation for the Blind, that made possible the investigation and tests of the various raised prints, and ensured the final victory for uniformity. He gave thousand (sic) dollars to finance the committee which studied the type question. This was a tremendous benefaction to the blind of America. The only fitting expression of gratitude to him is to declare publicly the mental relief and happiness of the blind in at last having, like those who see, a unified, easy method of reading and writing, a method adequate to all the practical uses of life and work. Thus, at last the blind of both hemispheres were united in one method of embossed writing. It is now necessary to print books only in this type to make them available to all the blind.

Truly, books are lamps in my own life and in the lives of countless other blind people. They are a haven of peace sweet to rest in after we have been tossed on the waves of discouragement. They deliver us from the dreary monotony of blindness! With words of light they transport us from our little corner in the dark to the colorful, throbbing, creative life of mankind. They roll up the curtain of night, as it were, and reveal to us the glory of dawn and starry skies, the sea and mighty forests. As Madame Bertha Galeron, A (sic) French deaf blind poet, says, "To put a book on our knee is more than a benefit, it is almost a work of salvation."

The importance of a common embossed print is still more evident when we remember that one of the first things an adult person who loses his sight must do is to learn how to read and write by touch. He has to learn how to do the old thing in a new way, and that is hard enough without confusing him with a Babel of types.

Braille has been a most precious aid to me in many ways. It made my going to college possible — it was the only method by which I could take notes of lectures. All my examination papers were copied for me in this system. I use Braille as a spider uses its web — to catch thoughts that flit across my mind for speeches, messages and manuscripts.

Without Braille I should not have had courage to jump into "Midstream," — my new book bringing up to date the story of my life which is to be published in this autumn. I wrote out in Braille a synopsis of what I wanted to say, then I copied the manuscript on the typewriter.

Oh, how often I blessed Louis Braille for his invention! Oh the appearance of my study in those days! — my table, desk, chairs, couch and floor covered with what Conrad describes as " the litter of a cruel battle-field (sic), — living pages, pages scored and wounded, dead pages" and pages that a vagrant breeze had spirited away into a corner! Without Braille I could not have held the thread of my discourse. O the miracle of Louis Braille's invention — the strange dotted characters which gave eyes to the blind, redeemed them from despair and knit their souls with the soul of mankind in sweet unison. They who once sat brooding through sad, interminable days of emptiness now look with rapt gaze upon the universe as they read with the eyes in their fingers. From the tomb of sealed sense they have risen to the morning light and the ecstasy of thought. They live fully, instead of only the half-life of darkness! Happy, they no longer remember their hours of solitude — they are not alone any more! Like friends their books speak to them with words of enchantment.

O the joy of being able to think! O the precious power of self-expression! O the comfort of forgetting sorrow in love's confidences! O the blessedness of treading the high places of the spirit unfettered! O the delicious taste of independence that comes with an embossed book, and a Braille tablet!

Yes, the blind can now work, they can study, they can sing, they can add their share to the good and happiness in the world. And it was Louis Braille, a captive bearing a yokecruel (sic) as their own, who found the golden key to unlock their prison-door.