Military night vision codes & Braille – history intertwined

When I was little, the lights at our house had to go out at a certain time every night. I read books using a flashlight under the blankets some nights – and wished I could read in the dark. When I worked in state government, there was a braille imprint of my name above the traditional letters on the nameplate over my office door. I used to wish that my fingers could scan the code of raised dots and “read” them. So it was with great interest that I read the Writer’s Almanac recent tribute to Louis Braille on the anniversary of his birthday on January 4. I resolved to learn more about reading in the dark and reading options for the visually-impaired. They’re linked in ways that surprised me.

Reading requires de-coding. Most of us think about reading as seeing the letters and words with our eyes and de-coding them for reading and the necessary comprehension. And writing requires that we use the code we have learned of letters and words, to construct new text. But not all of us have the option of eyesight. What do we do when it’s dark and we cannot see text? What do the visually-impaired do, who cannot see letters and words on a page, whether night or day? 

The ability to read in the dark and the ability for vision-impaired people to read are linked in a fascinating way historically. Most of us know about braille, a reading and writing system for the blind.[1] Braille has a compelling history born from the marriage of two seemingly unrelated worlds: 1) the military seeking a secret code for soldiers to write and read messages in the dark on missions (“night vision” tool); and 2) inventors who developed what we know as braille then improved it and worked to codify worldwide the resulting reading/writing system and related technologies for the visually impaired.  

It begins with night vision systems. Charles Barbier de La Serre was born in France in 1767. When he was 15 he entered a Military Academy where he graduated as an artillery officer. Charles became interested in secret writing codes and in his 40s, published a method in the French language for using a pen-knife to carve written characters (embossed dots to represent sounds since most soldiers were illiterate) that could be read in the dark and decoded with the fingertips. He was not thinking of blind people his idea was to enable officers to write and read coded messages in the dark on missions in the field.The system was called “night writing.” The system Charles devised did not gain the army’s support the system of twelve raised dots which could be combined to represent different sounds was thought to be too complicated.

It was a full decade later that Charles’ idea along with the machine he invented to prepare the coded messages was on display at a museum in Paris. This was when the light bulb went on for him   this system might help blind people. At the time, blind children were primarily learning to read using a method developed 20 years earlier, by Frenchman, Valentin Haüy. The main school for the blind then was the Royal Institution for the Young Blind in Paris (later renamed the National Institute for Blind Youth).  Valentin was the school’s founder, and though not blind himself, was devoted to helping the blind. Valentin developed a method using typesetting machines to enlarge standard letters (Latin letters) that were embossed on heavy paper. This system resulted in a small library of books for the children at the school. Readers would use their fingers to trace over the text, reading the raised Latin letters slowly. There were three key downsides of this system: 1) once the system was learned, reading comprehension was slow (slow reading of letters resulted in slow comprehension of the meaning of the words); 2) it was costly and took a long time to produce enough books for children in the school; and 3) children could not write by themselves because a machine process was needed to use this embossing method.  

It was around this time that our military expert, Charles, presented his idea for a new reading/writing (decoding) system for the use of the blind. He presented his ideas to the Headmaster of the Royal Institution for the Young Blind and despite objections from Valentin who wanted to continue to use his system, the new system was adopted as the key method for teaching children to read at the school. Louis Braille was then 12 years old he had come to the school at the age of 10 and had been reading using Valentin’s method for two years.

Although the new system was an improvement, there were still serious limitations. For example, Charles’ system only allowed phonetic reading; there was no representation of grammar and punctuation; it did not enable writing; and it was complicated to learn and use since it was based on counting dots but not the idea of combining dots to form a single image that could be “read” by touch.

Louis Braille recognized the limitations of both of these reading methods. Here’s where Louis’ history becomes very relevant.

Louis was born in 1809 in a village outside Paris. His father made a living working with leather goods. When Louis was three years old, he injured one of his eyes playing with a tool (an awl) used to pierce holes in leather. The local doctor treated his eye but it became infected and spread to the other eye as well. By the age of five, Louis was blind in both eyes. Louis’ parents tried to help him live a normal life. They taught him how to get around his village using canes made by his father. Widely recognized for his keen intelligence by family, priests and local teachers, Louis was encouraged to continue his education. He studied in his village until the age of 10, and then attended the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris.

At 12 years old, Louis was at the Institute pondering the troublesome drawbacks of both the Valentin and Charles reading systems. Louis’ biography tells us that after he completed his regular studies during the day at school, he spent nights and summer holidays designing a new system for reading and writing.  By the end of 1824 at just 15 he had fully developed his own alphabetical system by using an awl,the same kind of tool which had blinded him, to create a raised-dot system that readers could feel with their fingertips. At 19 years old, he became a teacher at the school, teaching general education and music. A year later, he expanded his raised-dot alphabet method to include writing words, music, and medieval chant music. The first pamphlet describing his method was published in1829 Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them. Louis continued to improve the system over the next several years, with publication of the second edition of his work when he was 28. This system is essentially the braille system which has been used for over 170 years.

You would think the story ends here, with Louis’ reading/writing “braille” method. But developing a product does not mean that others know about it, as good marketing folks will tell us.

A fourth Frenchman arrives on the scene, Maurice de La Sizeranne. Maurice was born in 1857, five years after Louis’ death. Maurice was also a young boy (nine years old) when he lost his eyesight in an accident. He studied as well at the National Institute for the Young Blind, where he was a very talented student in music. He was appointed music teacher at the school at the age of 21. That same year, there was an important international conference on improving the situation for the blind and the deaf-and-dumb. The delegates at the conference recognized the superiority of braille for written French and discussed ways to unify the practice of using braille more widely. Two years later, Maurice left his teaching job to devote his work to efforts to support the blind. He developed the French spelling textbook for teaching children to read braille. He also started three journals to help blind adults who were on their own once they left school to find information and tools to help them develop careers. He created a braille library from his personal collection which was later expanded to include a braille music library. And he devised a strategy of inviting “celebrities” who might be interested in the condition of the blind to his home to interest them in spearheading various projects. Celebrities included teachers from schools for the blind, inventors of devices and systems, and headmasters of schools. One of these visits resulted in the development of a new charity in 1889, the Valentin Haüy Association. Maurice assumed the position as Secretary-General of the Association ─ and for the next 28 years in this job was able to spread information widely about the teaching of braille and the use of reading devices. By the time of Maurice’s death in 1924 at the age of 67, he was credited with improving the braille code and making it known throughout France and Europe.

A fifth man is also part of this unique history of French inventors. By the late 1830s, Louis Braille was working on a method to enable sighted and blind people to communicate with one another directly. The system was called decapoint. This was a system of dot-punching using a specialized grill to overlay the paper, which when used with an associated number table also designed by Louis, enabled a “crosswalk between braille’s six-point dots and the standard alphabet. Louis sought the help of fellow-blind friend and inventor, Pierre-François-Victor Foucault, a mechanic and former pupil of the Institute, to collaborate in developing a mechanical device for decapoint. The device (predecessor to the typewriter) used a board with heavy paper on it and a stylus which the user could use to trace the dot patterns to represent letters (embossed script could be reproduced faster with this method as pistons moved the different styli). The person writing went from right to left. After finishing, the writer could turn the paper over and read from left to right, and the “letters” could be felt with the fingers or seen with the eyes. Foucault’s machine, a raphigraphe (needle-writer), was exhibited with at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1855. Louis Braille was credited with inventing a new method for writing that enabled blind and sighted people to write to each other through raphigraphy and Foucault invented the machine.  

The significant contributions of all these five Frenchmen were key to bringing reading and writing systems to the visually impaired. The coming together of a night vision coding system, recognition that the sense of touch could be used as a workable strategy for sightless reading, development of an “alphabetic” system through raised dots on a page, and the use of technology to mechanize processes to move the system to broader scale –seem an improbable set of couplings yet so logical looking at history through the glasses of hindsight vision.

Are there lessons in this history for current reading systems, be they for visually-impaired children learning to read and write or children with sight?  With the growing availability and use of screen-reader software, braille usage has clearly declined. There are at least two schools of thought on methods for learning to read, depending on the severity of the vision impairment. Children who can see letters with sufficient magnification are typically learning to read “traditionally” with the assistance of technology. For them, there is a dispute whether this is the best approach for building the strongest reading skills. Many of these children are mainstreamed in public education where learning braille is not an option; yet children who learn braille appear to have better developed reading and writing capabilities later in school and life. For the truly blind, the preferred option appears to be braille. Braille education is important for developing reading skills among both blind and visually-impaired children, and braille literacy correlates with higher employment rates. This debate will no doubt continue.

Meanwhile, I have learned the braille alphabet well enough now to very slowly “read” my name on the old state government nameplate framed on my office desk at home. And thanks to the technology of an e-reader with audio option, I can read under the blankets in bed in the dark ─either be read to or read the lighted words that flash on the screen. 

Would that all our children, sighted or visually impaired, have the best tools to read and write in the light and the dark.

Louis Braille

[1]“Braille is a method of reading and feeling text through touch, rather than sight. It is mainly used by those with impaired vision; however, sighted people can read Braille as well. There are many reasons for this, especially for those with a blind or visually impaired person in their household. There are many types of Braille, including musical, mathematical, and multiple types of literary Braille.”  (