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A Look Back

Editor's note: Perhaps no controversy in our field has been as long lasting, or as intense, as the War of the Dots. Featured in this Look Back are highlights of one of the most contentious battles in that war--the fight between proponents of New York Point, a unique "point" or tactile writing system created by William Bell Wait of the New York Institution for the Blind, and those in favor of American Braille, a system that was based on Louis Braille's original code and similar to English Braille devised in part by Edward E. Allen of the Perkins Institution. (Examples of the various point systems can be seen in Figure 1.) As illustrated in the following excerpts from the 1908 report of the Uniform Type Committee of the American Association of Workers for the Blind and the 1909 deliberations on selecting a single tactile reading system for the New York City public school system, Outlook for the Blind played a critical role as witness to this issue by publishing the discussion of these public hearings in full. (Read more first-hand accounts online: <>.)

Key players in the War of the Dots whose comments are presented here include Sir F. J. Campbell of the Royal Normal College for the Blind and father of Charles Campbell, Outlook's first editor, who presents a letter he had sent to Mr. Wait in 1903 pledging the support of the English toward devising a single braille system for use in England and America. Ironically, despite Mr. Wait's decision to ignore the letter, the War of the Dots ended when Standard English Braille was adopted in 1932 by Uniform Type Committee representatives from America and England. Other notable figures include Frank H. Hall, the creator of the braillewriter, Winifred Holt, the most vocal advocate for American Braille and founder of the New York Association for the Blind, and Helen Keller.

Michael J. Bina, Ed.D.

Chair, JVIB Editoral Advisory Board

Rev. A. E. Hatch


Each of us has his own ideas, but should be willing to surrender them for the good of all. Come what may, we all want unity.

Dr. F. J. Campbell

Superintendent, Royal Normal College for the Blind, London

I have always been fighting to get only one system [of point or braille writing]. It should not be forgotten that five years ago the English Braille Committee sent the following letter to the American Convention when it met at Raleigh, N.C. It was sent to, Mr. Ray, the superintendent of that institution. I learned afterwards that he and Mr. Wait, the chairman, thought it better to put the letter away without reading it to the convention.

During the last week in April a large and influential conference was held in London attended by managers, superintendents, and teachers of the institutions for the blind throughout the United Kingdom, and also by the secretaries and missionaries of the home teaching and blind aid societies.
Among many subjects which were discussed at the conference the great need of a uniform system of reading and writing for the blind was felt to be of such importance that a representative committee was appointed to carefully consider the methods now in use in this country and in America, and to adopt, if possible, some system which from its simplicity and general excellence would be acceptable throughout the English-speaking world.
We trust that the convention will appoint a representative committee to correspond and exchange views with the English committee, in the hope that our joint deliberation may finally evolve a system which will be acceptable to both countries. The adoption of one system of point writing for the English-­speaking world will cheapen books and bring the embossed literature of America, the United Kingdom and Colonies into common use among the blind. The desirability of a uniform system is so great that we believe it will secure your cordial cooperation and support.

Under these circumstances I do hope the Americans will give careful consideration to this subject. I hope that this conference will come to the conclusion that it would be wise to adopt the English Braille, and that the whole system of contractions be referred to an international committee.

Dr. C. F. Fraser

Superintendent, School for the Blind, Halifax, N. S.

Louis Braille had in view, in the formation of his code, a system that would become universal. I know the advantages and disadvantages of the many systems. I should like my pupils to have access to all that is printed in the various systems, but I do not believe in taxing their minds with the memorizing of the several systems now in use. I sincerely hope that the committee will broaden the scope of its work by including all English-speaking countries.

Dr. Newel Perry

New York

Any movement to secure a uniform type must be more than national. Let us cooperate with the various nations of Europe. Dr. Campbell has offered us the cooperation of the English, an offer the acceptance of which can be prevented only by our stupidity.

Ambrose M. Shotwell


It is conceded, as implied in the committee's recommendations, that the full spelling [of words] may be desirable in the textbooks for young learners in the lower grades, where the books are chiefly used in learning to read and spell. But as soon as the pupil reaches a stage where textbooks are needed in learning lessons in geography, grammar, history, and other branches, and where economy of time and labor becomes a matter of importance (say in the third reader grade), after he has thoroughly learned the spelling of the words to be represented by single characters, a standard punctographic system with its approved special signs and initial contractions should be thoroughly taught, and should be employed in all higher academic and miscellaneous publications.

Edward E. Allen

Superintendent, Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind

I rise as a representative of the schools; they seem this morning to need representation. I stand here also as a disciple of progress and evolution.

While the progressive American code contents itself with fewer than fifty simple contractions, untrammeled by rules, the English revels in over one hundred and in rules galore. The Britisher likes it because of the shibboleth, "What's good enough for my fathers is good enough for me."... John Bull naturally prefers to give something to Uncle Sam rather than take anything from him, and yet there are prominent English educators of the blind bemoaning the fact that the admittedly superior American Braille could not be adopted in Britain; I have in my files letters to that effect. What a pity our scientific system was ever called "American!"

[As a representative of] the schools for the young blind I protest against the forced survival of an unfit type. We in the United States need not the most involved but the most evolved type. The books of no point system other than American Braille can serve as models of "correct" writing. If there is a system better than American Braille let us have it by all means; but do not expect us to revert to a type simply because it is old. Of course, universality is desirable, and the argument for it good so far as it goes; but we can easily overestimate its importance.

Altogether too much importance has been laid on what you are pleased to call our multiplicity of types. Remarkably fetching expression! One would infer that there is a whole raft of types. There have been, to be sure, perhaps a hundred within a hundred years, most of them ephemeral; but now there remain only three needing consideration in America--Moon's type, New York point, and American Braille. Of course one of them is bound to disappear; for this is the law of evolution. The passing battle of the types doesn't trouble me, for I know that competition eliminates defects, brings out good qualities, and as a result we have that which is fittest to survive.

Abraham Stern

Board of Education, City of New York

The Board of Education is about to commence the education of its blind children in the public schools, and we want to start right.We have asked you to come and assist the Committee by presenting the merits of the different systems. The Board, of course, is not wedded to any one particular system. It wants to do right by the children--that is its sole object.

In Favor of New York Point
F. Augustus Schermerhorn

Board of Trustees, New York Institution for the Blind

I submit the following as some of the reasons why the New York Point should be adopted for the Public Schools: First: It is taught and is the system in use at each of the New York institutions and it is as easily learned as any other system. Second: It takes up much less space than other systems. Third: It is as easily written or embossed by hand as any other system. Fourth: By far the greatest number of books for the blind in [New York] are in New York Point. Therefore, on the ground of proper economy alone--if for no other reason--the New York Point ought to be adopted.

William B. Wait

Principal Emeritus, New York Institution for the Blind

Some will say that the English Braille is better than the American Braille, and some will say [the opposite]. This book is the story of Sarah Crewe, printed in English Braille with a large number of contractions. Here is the same book printed in New York Point with twelve contractions only. The number of contractions in this English Braille book is considerably more, probably twice as many. The actual area required for this English Braille book is 97 per cent more than it is in this New York Point by actual measurement.

Time is of as much consequence to blind people as it is to others. In regard to contractions, some will say that contractions are disadvantageous, and in some sense perhaps we might admit that they may be for a little time with people who are out of school and do not have a desire to learn anything but the alphabet, but when we come to the question of education and to the development of the mind, we set no limits at all to the materials which may be employed. What will it mean to fail to teach the N. Y. Point system to the children of the City of New York? It will mean that they will be deprived of all the resources which have been created during the period of more than forty years. It will mean that they cannot use the literature which has been created for them.

In Favor of American Braille
Frank H. Hall

Mr. President, nineteen years ago I was confronted with exactly the problem with which you are confronted to-day. I had been appointed by the Governor of Illinois to take charge of a blind school. I knew nothing of the work whatever, having been engaged for the thirty preceding years as a teacher or superintendent of public schools in Illinois. I was anxious to do the right thing, just as you are. You simply want to know what is best for the children.

Nearly every new school in the last ten years has adopted Braille. My experience was based on twenty years' intimate knowledge of the various prints for the blind. As to the superiority of Braille over New York Point any impartial teacher who has used both systems will tell you of the greater simplicity of Braille to read and write and to correct."

Miss Winifred Holt

Miss Keller wished me to read [the following letter by her]:

I have been deeply interested these many years in the question of raised types, not so much for my own advantage (I read all the systems) as for that of the large number of blind persons who may not share my good fortune. I understand that you are to consider the relative merits of American Braille and New York Point. Between these two systems, it seems to me, there can be no question when the facts are all properly presented to you.
I have always found New York Point a difficult, unsatisfactory system. I object to it as it appears in most books which I have seen because it does not use capitals, apostrophes and hyphens. This sometimes spoils the sense for the reader. But it has a worse effect upon the young pupil. He is liable to get an imperfect idea of capitalization and punctuation. I have received letters written on the ordinary ink typewriter from blind persons which contained errors significantly like the defects of New York Point, and I can not but believe that this illiteracy is traceable to their habitual use of a defective mode of punctographic writing during school years.
New York Point is much harder for me to read than American Braille. It wears my reading finger more to travel over letters three dots wide and two high as they are in New York Point than over letters two dots wide and three high as they are in American Braille.
I note, too, that in the great world of the blind New York Point is a provincialism. The machines for it are made only in New York, and write only New York Point. On the other hand, machines for Braille are made in Germany, France, England and America. I have owned American and German Braille writers which place me in communication with people all over the world. I am sure that in all important respects American Braille is superior to New York Point because it meets completely the needs of capitalization, punctuation, legibility and physical ease of reading.

Your Board is making every effort to live up to your ideal of giving the blind child an equal chance in the public schools with the sighted child. The blind child who learns our form--the most scientific adaptation of Braille--can, with little study read the books which are printed all over the world. As postage for the blind is free now in some places, and probably soon will be so generally, the blind who are cruelly cut off from the sights of our beautiful world can still have the consolation of many foreign books which can make them the companions of the wise men and women of all the ages.

In selecting a type to educate our blind we must choose that one which offers them the largest field of usefulness and self-help. They must learn to read and write so accurately that their English can in all respects compare with that of the sighted in the business, political and intellectual world. If we keep our ideal of giving a fair chance to the blind, can we afford to retain a system which has been amply proved by experts--including Helen Keller--to be inadequate in the reading and writing of English, in music, and without a shorthand system, and which is also unrelated to any of the prints in the world? Should we do this because the hapless blind child has a heritage of New York Point books in the libraries?

We have before us a great opportunity of service; if we start model methods of education we will set an example to the rest of the world of how to lift from pitiful ignorance and discontent a crowd of forgotten and hopeless blind children, and how best to give them a chance with the other sons of men. Let us equip them so well and with such sound weapons for their fight that they may develop to the utmost whatsoever capacity God may have given them, so that despite their handicap, they may win out side by side with their seeing schoolmates, and find "Light through Work."

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