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Panel 1: In the early weeks of 1809, three baby boys were born who changed the course of history: Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States; Charles Darwin, British father of the theory of evolution; and Louis Braille, the French inventor of a means of literacy for blind people worldwide. Unlike Lincoln and Darwin, Braille’s genius is little known, except among those who have been touched by his gift of literacy. [Three stamps: Darwin, Lincoln, and Braille]
Panel 2: Louis was born January 4, 1809, in the village of Coupvray, just outside Paris. His father, Simon-René, supported the family as a harness maker, and young Louis liked to watch him as he cut and shaped the leather. One day, at the age of three, Louis grabbed a sharp tool and accidentally blinded himself. Louis’s parents were distraught but determined that their son would receive an education, unlike “those unfortunate beings, unseen and unknown by the world.” Caption: Today Louis’s home is a museum open to the public. [Louis’s home; boy grabbing tool]
Panel 3: Most blind people during Louis Braille’s lifetime lived lives of utter poverty. Those living in rural areas worked in gardening or fruit picking, or as peddlers or beggars who roamed the country. Blind people who lived near cities worked as musicians, town criers, bell ringers, water carriers, or circus performers, but most lived near the edge as beggars. Louis Braille was one of the lucky few to receive a good education at a residential school in Paris. Caption: Two blind beggars approach each other in the mistaken hopes of a handout. [Country beggars; blind street musicians]
Panel 4: At 10 years of age, Louis was accepted at the Institute in Paris. Before braille, lessons were recited verbally and there were few books. Letters were simply raised on the page in embossed type, which was difficult to read. Writing was equally challenging and required memorization of the shapes of letters. The genius of Louis’s six-dot braille cell was that it fit neatly under one’s fingertip—one dot higher or one dot wider and the signs would be scarcely readable. Captions: A blind boy traces the shapes of engraved letters. Deciphering ornate font styles by touch was extremely slow and tedious. [Embossed type; boy and teacher]
Panel 5: By the time Louis was 15, he had invented the basic braille code used today. The logic Braille used was ingenious in its simplicity. The first ten letters of the alphabet, a-j, use ten different arrangements of dots within the cell. The next ten letters of the alphabet, k-t, are the same as the first ten, except that dot 3 is added to each one. Finally, the letters u, v, x, y, and z are formed by adding dots 3 and 6 to each cell. Only the letter w does not fit this scheme. Words with w were not part of the French language at the time, and Louis added it later. Caption: 63 patterns are mathematically possible with six dots.
Panel 6: As a young teen, Louis was an accomplished musician and played the organ in several prominent churches in Paris. During summer vacations, he earned pocket change tuning pianos around Coupvray. Until Louis invented a braille music code in the 19th century, there was no useable system for a blind musician to learn or compose music independently. The braille music code of today is flexible enough to meet the requirements of any instrument. Caption: At the Café of the Blind in Paris, people were entertained by an orchestra of blind musicians. [Music braille; blind musicians]
Panel 7: At 19, Louis was appointed to a full-time teaching position at the Institute, where he taught grammar, geography, history, math, and music to both blind and sighted students. A colleague wrote, “He functioned as a teacher with such charm and wisdom that, for his students, the obligation to attend class was transformed into a real pleasure.” Chronic tuberculosis, the result of unsanitary conditions at the school, would eventually force him to reduce his workload. Caption: Blind students pose outside the Institute with their raphigraphes.
Panel 8: The students at the Institute remained away from home much of the year, and letter writing was the sole means of staying in touch with family. While braille worked exceedingly well for blind users, it did not resolve the problem of communicating with the sighted world. Louis realized that he could also use dots to form print letters and worked with a fellow blind mechanic to invent a raphigraphe dot-matrix printer. The results can still be read today, 170 years later, by all. Caption: A sample of dot-matrix printing on a raphigraphe.
Panel 9: On January 6, 1852, Louis died of tuberculosis—a disease that had
been gnawing at him for more than 25 years. He was 43. There was no mention
of Louis Braille’s death in the Paris newspaper of 1852. Virtually unknown
outside his hometown and Paris, his remains lay undisturbed in the Coupvray
cemetery for 100 years. The code he had invented almost three decades earlier
was not officially accepted in France until two years after his death. Captions:
Townsfolk of Coupvray beside La Statue de Braille; miniature in ivory of Louis
Braille by Lucienne Filippi.
Panel 10: In 1952, French authorities decided that Louis Braille merited a place in the Pantheon and his remains were transferred there—all except his hands, which were kept in an urn in Coupvray at the insistence of the mayor. Helen Keller, who spoke at the commemorations in Paris, declared, “...we, the blind, are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg.” As his coffin was borne through the streets toward the Pantheon, hundreds of white canes tapped along behind. Caption: Helen Keller’s hands move gracefully across a page of braille. [Interment; hands reading braille]
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